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Reel Review: Tomboy – Innocent, Subversive, Powerful

A still from the movie "Tomboy", showing a young child in a white vest and blue jacket that's falling off her shoulders.

Celine Sciamma’s ‘Tomboy’, is a brilliantly woven tale that dissolves rigid gender and sexual boundaries and defies quite a few dominant normative perceptions in the process. Laure (played by Zoe Heran) is 10, biologically assigned female but feels more comfortable in boys’ clothes. A tall, lanky body and cropped blonde hair aid her alternate personality as ‘Mikael’, an identity she adopts in her new neighbourhood amongst peers and Lisa, a young neighbour who develops a crush on Mikael. Laure has a younger sister Jeanne who, interestingly, is as ‘feminine’ as our social conditioning might lead us to believe. Her mother and father seem nice and supportive and quite loving and it is a relief to me at the very outset during the scene where Laure’s father is teaching her to drive that the movie will be anything but another gruesome, disturbing, albeit stirring Hollywood-ish ‘Boys Don’t Cry’ whose protagonist was also caught between the roles of Brandon/Teena. The film questions and challenges our understanding of gender identities without much melodrama, its protagonist inspiring neither awe nor reverence nor pity but only, at first, utter joy at the film’s childish innocence and later, anger for subjecting Laure to unfair social conventions.

I do apologize for not being able to avoid using gendered pronouns to describe Laure but I guess our linguistic traditions have been unfortunately influenced too severely by our ideas of male and femaleness and I have much of that baggage to let go of. The film’s title was a dead giveaway as to its story, which also led me to question from the very beginning if Laure was a trans person or a lesbian or a tomboy or all of these or none of these. I love that Sciamma never gives a concrete answer to this, further establishing the fluidity of gender; that identities can and do constantly evolve and change.

Witnessing a soccer match between two groups of boys who’ve taken off their shirts makes Laure/Mikael, who cannot do the same, lest the secret gets out, look uncomfortable. The film, then, brilliantly turns societal constructs of gender on their head when it not only shows Laure playing soccer as Mikael, shirt taken off and then using a fake penis made of modelling clay to go swimming with the boys. The privilege that our history and politics and culture have ascribed to the male organ, the penis, is rendered completely ineffectual by the latter scene. The ‘possession’ of the ‘penis’ is no extraordinary feat as social mores would have us believe, but is just a biological coincidence that can be gotten or forgotten as one may aspire to.

I was quite surprised by Laure’s mother’s reaction on being confronted by ‘Mikael’. It is interesting that the movie decided to show a supportive mother, at ease with her daughter’s tomboyish-ness, but only as long as it did not become too real. The best of us find it easier to grapple with the idea of an ‘other’, than having to accommodate that very ‘other’ into our own lives. I think, for many of us, the scene with Laure and their mother will hit much closer to home.

A film as simple and poignantly moving as ‘Tomboy’ has become one of the most thought provoking yet childlike and hauntingly beautiful insights into identity politics I have ever seen. I was left wondering *spoiler alert* if Lisa extending the olive branch to Laure after finding out the truth about Mikael is a hint at Lisa’s own evolving sense of homosexuality, but again was glad that the movie made no assumptions or attempts to bracket the budding sexualities of Lisa and Laure.

For me, the movie did not really ‘end’. There was no grim sense of finality to Laure’s or Mikael’s story. I continue to find comfort in imagining the beautiful future that the many Laures and Mikaels around the world deserve to have, neither constrained nor damaged by the archaic notions of morality and social conduct that we ascribe to their selves and their sexualities. The reality, however, as the stigma and violence inflicted on the Pinki Pramaniks and Cece Mcdonalds of this world has shown us, is much more gutting.

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