The road toward equal representation in pop culture and entertainment is a rocky one, where it's easy to accidentally double back. If 50 major movies aimed at, say, black audiences or women are made in a year, that's great, but if all of the former are racial tension dramas and all of the latter are inadvertently sexist romantic comedies, that's hardly progress. What makes Céline Sciamma's Tomboy special, then, is the way it tells a story of young love between two girls without any need to frame everything inside any sort of societal or cultural big picture.
Zoé Héran plays Laure, a 10-year-old who has just moved to a new city with her family. Her look consists of short hair, a wifebeater, and baggy shorts, so when she runs into Lisa (Jeanne Disson) while looking for the neighborhood boys, it's easy for her to claim that her name is Mikael instead. Although Laure is interested in being accepted by the other boys, playing basketball and wrestling, she's more interested in Lisa. Lisa is interested in "Mikael," as well, but the threat of having the lie revealed looms over Laure's head.
Although Tomboy is a gay romance, Sciamma never feels the need to remind the audience through the plot or her direction. Instead, she frames the need to fit in and the lies that go with it under the universal umbrella of childhood. Scenes of Laure watching the boys and mimicking their attitude during a sports game should hit home for anyone who looked at others to fit in, even if it will have further meaning for people who personally identify with Laure's experience. Sciamma also suggests an emotional distance between Laure and her mother (Sophie Cattani) by showing us more of Laure's relationship with her father (Mathieu Demy). There is conflict on the horizon, yet the way it plays out is simple and understated, relieving and refreshing.
Sciamma also focuses on things that have nothing to do with the romance at hand, another subtle decision that refocuses the story firmly on Laure. A huge chunk of the movie is devoted to the relationship between Laure and her younger sister Jeanne (Malonn Lévana). Lévana's performance is remarkable, delivering dramatically and comedically in a number of complex and compelling scenes. The bond between sisters generally illustrated in films as a love-hate relationship that only comes together at moments prescribed to tug at the heartstrings, but every moment between Heron and Lévana is wonderful and authentic.
In the lead roles, Heron and Disson convey the perfect mix of quiet-on-the-outside, butterflies-on-the-inside electricity, showing the emotional wheels turning at all times. Together, they embody the awkwardness and excitement of young love in a way that defies the need to box and label the film. Movies will come and go that strive to be a special coming-of-age gay love story, but Sciamma takes a different path. Tomboy simply tries to be special, and succeeds effortlessly.
Wolfe offers Tomboy on DVD with the same art as the poster. The overall package is the kind of text-heavy, slightly over-cluttered look that almost all films from small distributors end up having, complete with an overly large QR code on the back cover so people who see Tomboy in a store can watch the trailer on their smartphones. There is no insert.
The Video and Audio
Well, I didn't notice any compression artifacts in this 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer, but everything else is a little questionable. On a technical level, Tomboy is plagued by interlacing and burned-in subtitles, the latter of which seems like an unforgivable crime in 2012 (at least it's not non-anamorphic, I guess). Colors look okay when the characters are outside, but it's a murky transfer otherwise, with weak contrast that turns black into gray. Fine detail is so-so in close-ups and poor elsewhere, thanks not only to color and contrast issues but also to the overall softness of the image. Dolby Digital 5.1 surround sound is decent but doesn't get much to do in a quiet romance, with the surrounds generally only perking up for music or the occasional outdoorsy atmospheric effect. Dialogue is never muddled or scratchy. Five years ago, this kind of presentation for a foreign film would be expected, but many of these things are a disappointment. A 2.0 track is also included.
The only extra is a behind-the-scenes featurette (17:53) that contains a good mix of on-set footage and interviews. As with many foreign behind-the-scenes pieces I've watched, some of it is a little dry (music would help), but footage of Heron and Disson on set is worth it.
An anti-piracy promo (tailored specifically toward gay and lesbian films) and a trailer for Joe + Belle play before the main menu, with additional trailers for Kiss Me, Leading Ladies, and Trigger available on the special features menu. An original theatrical trailer for Tomboy is also included.
Although the presentation feels a bit dated, Tomboy the film is refreshing, telling a story without getting hung up on what's going on outside of it. Some might say it's too simple, but that's the point: it captures a time when the real world seemed far away. Highly recommended on the strengths of the film itself.
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