I'm not really sure how to take Tomboy (2011, directed by Céline Sciamma). It's one of the most carefully observed movies about childhood in recent memory, lovingly mounted and beautifully performed. It's also infuriatingly coy about what it's about.
Tomboy follows a family to a new home. The father has a new job. The mother is very pregnant with a third child. The two kids are like any siblings: loving and cruel to each other in equal measure, but mostly loving. The older child is Laure, who the film doesn't gender until it's well under way. Laure is a ostensibly as a girl, but self-identifies as a boy when ze meets Lisa, the neighbor girl who her his eye on hir. Laure gives hir name as "Mickael" and constructs an identity as a boy as ze meets the neighborhood kids. Hir sister, Jeanne, is a girly girl, and gets wise to hir masquerade and comes to like the idea of having a big bother. Mikael carefully observes the other neighborhood boys before joining their sports and games. When the kids make an expedition to a swimming hole, Mickael constructs a packer to conceal hir anatomical sex. Things come crashing down, unfortunately, when Mickael gets into a fight with a boy who has been bullying hir sister, and the fallout finds hir mother enforcing a feminine gender role upon hir.
Tomboy is slanted such that it's impossible to determine whether or not Laure or Mickael is our young protagonist's identity, but it certainly has an awareness of the tropes of transgender depiction in movies. The movie is ambivalent about gendering Laure in the early going. While this serves its theme of ambiguous identity, it also lets the filmmakers indulge in The Crying Game trope, when Laure is bathing with hir sister, stands up, and reveals hir anatomy to the camera. This bothers me a little. Tomboy also presents trans signifiers throughout its running time (the trans masculine use of packers, for instance) while leaving open the possibility that Laure's life after hir discovery will be more conventionally queer or that these explorations are a phase. I suppose that it's possible that it IS all a phase, and that Laure isn't a trans kid, but the behavior during most of the movie argues otherwise. I started to get irritated about this during the film's last scene, when Laure is pressed for a "real" name by Lisa and ze offers the now enforced feminine name ze was assigned rather than the one ze adopted, suggesting that gender variance is correctable by strict adherence to gendered behavior. I found it all to be kind of troubling, because while there are certainly girls who are tomboys, Laure seems well beyond this. This strikes me as an appropriation of trans narratives by a cis filmmaker toward her own purposes. It's the same sort of problem I had with Pariah a few months ago.
I don't think any of this is cut and dried when examining the worth of Tomboy, because, as I say, it's a beautiful movie, one in which the humanity of its characters shines from the opening frame (in which Laure is standing up in the family car, head poking through the sunroof, and just basking in being alive). Its portrait of sibling relationships is as true as I've seen in any movie. Tomboy has a clear-eyed view of the capacity of children to be cruel, too, even good, well-behaved kids like Laure and hir sister, and that's evident in the way Jeanne tease Laure with the threat of disclosure and the way she blackmails hir to take her along with hir. There's a certain poetry to be found, too, in the way Tomboy films children at play. In these scenes, notions of gender recede into the background, though they do indulge in a fear of getting caught out, of being revealed. The scene where Mikael heads deep into the wood to pee is one such scene, and it ends in a fair amount of humiliation. Kids, as I've already mentioned, can be cruel. So, too, can parents. As someone who was once caught by my mother just as Laure is caught, I can sympathize with the humiliating enforcement of gender roles at the end of the movie. I imagine that trans guys and butches will find this even more on point, given the perception in society at large that femininity is essentially weaker than masculinity, and that women are an oppressed class. This all tends to demonize Laure's mother, by the way, which isn't fair to her. Up until this point, she's been shown as nothing but loving, so this seems needlessly cruel on her part, but I've never been in her shoes, so what do I know?
Zoe Heran gives a nuanced performance as Laure/Mickael, though part of the work is done for her by the simple fact that she's a beautiful and androgynous child. The camera loves both her huge blue eyes and her androgyny. Seeing how effortlessly she inhabits the male role of Mickael is something to see. The film places a premium on androgyny, by the way, and not just in the way it shoots Heran. There's a scene in which Mickael plays dress-up with Lisa and Lisa winds up putting make-up on hir. Rather than reduce Mickael's androgyny, it enhances it. This is another scene that tends to tip the hand of the filmmakers, given that there's a meme in some branches of feminist and queer theory that holds that genderqueer trans masculine identities are inherently transgressive and tend to demolish the idea of gender itself. The coyness of the film with regard to Laure/Mickael's identity seems to derive from this school of thought.
The other child actors in the film have an easier job, given that they only have to be kids, which isn't a stretch. Nor are they burdened with a queer politic in their performances. Malonn Lévana is especially good as Laure's sister, Jeanne. As I say, the film on the whole is one of the best evocations of childhood in recent memory. I wish I could leave it at that. But I can't.
Some of my non-queer cis readers may be looking at this post askance over the use of "ze" and "hir" as gender neutral pronouns. Given that the movie itself is ambivalent about its lead character's gender identity, I'm not about to assign one myself.