This review was originally published on June 22, 2011…
The premise is simple. A nine year old girl pretends to be a boy. Her hair is short and she has tomboy looks to pull off the charade. Her family just moved into the neighborhood, one of many moves they have done, and Laure introduces herself as Michael to her new neighbor friends. One of them is Lisa who develops a crush on Laure/Michael. Their scenes have an unforced innocence that gives a warm glow to prepubescent romantic feelings, even though poor Lisa has wool pulled over her eyes. As Michael, Laure is welcomed by the local kids. He/she plays soccer well and on a water raft pushes off a boy after much struggle to become king of the raft. Her androgynous hoax fools about everyone. What could have been a sinister story full of angst is refreshingly sweet. Even the parents are loving and caring rather than overbearing authority figures.
Céline Sciamma’s direction of the kids is magnificent. Their interactions are pure naturalism. It is like getting privy to a world where parents aren’t allowed. Games of soccer and capture the flag have a twitchy spirited clumsiness that real kids have. I wonder how much dialogue was improvised by the kids; it has that realistic feel. Sunny days of summer are wonderfully captured by cinematographer Crystel Fournier. It’s like childhood summer days simmer from the balmy screen.
But who really steals the show is Malonn Lévana as Laure’s six-year old sister Jeanne. She’s inherently cute but not in a saccharine Hollywood way. Think of charisma mixed with giggles. Her reaction to finding out about Laure’s secret might be the highlight of the movie. It’s the best child performance I have seen recently. On the other hand, Zoé Héran’s performance as Laure is made of subtle looks. A smile here, a look in the eyes over there speaks volumes. It is understated but well observed by the director so nothing gets lost.
Tomboy is a movie about kids that keeps the camera down with the kids. It’s a smart move that Spielberg and Truffaut did. As a result, the identification with childhood becomes intuitive and instinctual. People of all ages can find enjoyment in this French film of innocence.