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Zlin Film In Focus: TOMBOY

Written by: FFT Webmaster | June 6th, 2011

The Zlin Film Festival is most definitely a showcase for emerging directors. There is in fact a competition exclusively devoted to European filmmakers making their first films. However, strong early efforts are studded throughout the program, and none heralds as exciting new talent as French writer/director Céline Sciamma who is presenting her second feature film TOMBOY here in the Features Films For Youth competition.


Céline Sciamma, only 30 years old, studied French literature at first, then completed courses in screenwriting at the Paris film school La Femis. Her debut film was WATER LILIES (Naissance des pieuvres, 2007), which was successful at many international festivals. She also shot the short film PAULINE (2010) and returns to the feature format with TOMBOY. The film, which explores gender identity among pre-teenagers, had its world premiere at the Berlin Film Festival, where it won the Teddy Award as Best Gay Film of the Festival.

The film centers on 10 year old Laure. There is definitely something boyish about her, in fact she is mistaken for a boy by almost everyone. When her family moves to a new town, she pretends to be a boy to gain acceptance into a group of youngsters in her housing complex. Things get more complicated when he/she arouses the interest of Lisa, who also mistakes the girl for a boy. Laure dubs herself Mikaël, and, no sooner has she brought about this ‘transformation’ than she is accepted as just one of the boys. However, her growing closeness to Lisa and the fact that the summer is about to end and Laure will be revealed as a girl once school begins, creates a strong tension about gender identity in one so young. The film climaxes when Laure’s secret is revealed and she must confess to the boys and to a confused Lisa.

Scene from TOMBOY

Stories about transgenders have been done before, but never with someone so young as the protagonist. Is Laure the type of girl who does not feel she was born into the right body and who, as an adult, might decide to live fully as a man (or even have the sex change operation). The film leaves that to the audience’s imagination, although it certainly makes the point that she has felt more natural as a boy than as a girl. When her mother forces her to wear a dress in the film’s final scenes, she looks remarkably out of character. Something is all wrong with that picture, and as an audience member, one feels a sympathy with the young girl’s dilemma.

Avoiding melodramatic cliches, the director has cast the film brilliantly, particularly the young actress Zoe Heran as the tomboy, who very much looks and breathes the part.  Heran gets it just right. Not only is she/he piercingly photogenic, but she affects the self-conscious swagger of a boy with striking authenticity. It is sometimes hard to think you are looking at a girl, and you understand why Laure thinks it is unfair she is not a boy, especially when her newborn brother is born with his gender handed to him on a plate. The film is a striking meditation on gender roles and how we define masculine and feminine in our supposedly liberated society. For more information on the film, visit:


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