Saturday, November 12, 2011

French family dramedy with a twist: Céline Sciamma's TOMBOY opens at Film Forum

If you remember Céline Sciamma's first full-lengther, Water Lilies (from 2007), you'll recall that this relatively young French filmmaker was interested in intimacy and budding sexuality among high school girls and (to a lesser extent) a high school boy. With her new movie TOMBOY, Sciamma lowers the age range a good five years or more (none of the kids on view have developed their secondary sexual characteristics) and concentrates on an entire family, adults included this time around, and especially on one of its members, a deliciously male/female-looking little girl named Laure (shown above, and in several shots below).

Ms Sciamma, at right, draws a spectacularly real performance from her leading lady/gent, a relative newcomer named Zoé Héran, who has previously done only some French TV work. Ms Héran is on the mark at all times, whether she's playing a girl or that girl playing a boy engaging in soccer or a first kiss. So good is this little actress that she blurs the lines between male and female to such an extent that you are no longer sure where they end or begin. As screenwriter, Sciamma delivers a situation fraught with possibilities for melodrama and angst, but because she shows us most of this from the point of view of the child and her peer friends (and that of her younger sister, another delicious performance from Malonn Lévanabelow, left with Héran), events unfold with graceful, child-like realism rather than with any exaggerated emotional appeal.

When Laure's family must move to a new location, due to dad's work, this presents an opportunity for a new identity that the girl suddenly grabs and then more slowly works her way into. The various events and situations Sciamma has chosen charm and interest us, and they give opportunities for genuine drama and humour, as well.

Because the girls' parents -- beautifully played by Sophie Cattani (above, left, who was so good as the blowsy birth mom in I'm Glad My Mother Is Alive) and Mathieu Demy (below, right, and recently seen in Student Services) -- are highly "functional," as opposed to the more usually seen dysfunctional type, this gives the movie a kind of safety net for both the kids and us viewers. Nothing too awful can happen with these four characters in play.

Yet there is plenty of drama here, small and sweet as it is, and a wonderful cast of kids (below) to help bring it to life. One of the real joys of the movie is how it takes a situation/character in which incipient lesbianism is clearly indicated but then goes somewhere different from what we expect.

This is wonderfully subversive because it reduces the question of sexual and/or gender differences and preferences -- almost always a story's primary concern -- to part of the bigger, more important picture: family, friends, society, life.

Wisely, Sciamma chooses not to wrap much up. The movie, not unlike life, is one long, loose end. How this pretense, now exposed, will affect Laure's school life and her involvement with another girl (a low-key, charming performance from Jeanne Disson, above, right) are left open -- but with just a hint that, in the latter case, at least, things may be OK.

Tomboy, from Rocket Releasing, opens in New York City at Film Forum for a two-week run this Wednesday, November 16 (check performance times here). For a look at upcoming playdates, cities and theaters around the country, click here.

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