Film review: Tomboy examines feminism, sexuality

Tomboy is a French film with running themes of sexuality and coming of age that I watched for my International Cinema class last week.

The film’s main character is Laure, an adolescent girl who masquerades as a boy named Mikael when she moves into a new neighborhood. As the story continues, the audience recognizes curiosity as a constant theme throughout Tomboy as they watch Mikael seek to understand who he is based on his interactions with his family and his new friends.

The opening image shows the back of what looks like a boy’s slender head with wavy brown hair rustling in the wind during a car ride with his parents. His hand reaches up as though it is searching for something just beyond his reach.

“One thing we also talked about in class is this character Laure/Mikael because he is so young, he lacks the labels that adults use to define others,” Film Studies professor Steve Rybin said. “But he is not there yet. He is still exploring through the scenes in nature and his friends on the playground, whereas at home he is just seen as a conventional tomboy, that this is just a phase.”

The complex theme of sexuality runs deep throughout the film’s family, putting its members into awkward situations as they become aware of Laure impersonating a boy. Laure never backs down from being who he believes he really is, maintaining a short haircut and wearing baggy red shorts and loose shirts.

“What was interesting about our discussion in class is the uncertainty about the dress,” Professor Steve Rybin said. “I thought that was interesting and the whole point of Tomboy. I use both pronouns, depending on the context of the moment and the entity of that character.”

While interacting with his friends, her physical appearance is challenged based on what activities they do. When his new friends decide to go swimming, for example, he does not show up. At one point, however, she does explore feminine interests by cutting her shorts shorter but, she is not comfortable when she examines herself in the mirror.

It’s not until halfway through the film that we realize that the character is female. When Mikael makes friends with Lisa, his mother remarks that it is nice he is hanging out with girls, because he is always around boys. The mother later becomes pregnant with a boy, which interestingly mirrors Mikael’s circumstances and the question of sexuality: is who and what we are born as truly who we are?

One characteristic of Mikael’s that I adored is how he involves himself in his younger sister Jeanne’s life. He teases her and plays with her, and although he wants to have his own time with his friends, he still cares for her. She stands up to him when their mother does not know how to respond to finding out about about his behavior.

“His sister seems to really understand what he’s going through,” Rybin said, adding that while at first she reacted with confusion, she was still a child. Because of that, she is open. “The scenes between the two of them are my favorites.”

Mikael’s parents do not admonish her for her choice of dress, who she hangs out with, or how she acts, except when her mother finds out she has lied about being a boy. As an audience we continue to wonder if they will accept her for who she will become.

The bigger question then becomes whether Mikael’s peers will accept him, especially after having kept them in the dark. Mikael does not even tell Lisa, the friend who Laure gets along with best. It is quickly evident, however, that Lisa’s interest in Mikael is more than just friendly.

The film’s open ending left me pursuing my own questions in about change and growth. How much does society influence how you think, and how you see the world outside? Do your peers encourage your curiosity and development to help you discover who you really are? The answers do not come easily but what I saw from Tomboy is that the film encouraged you to embrace who you are with confidence, no matter what others might say. My passionate professor agreed.

“I think one of things this film is saying is that we are always playing and performing our identities,” Rybin said. “We are in control in how we present ourselves.”

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