Jeanne Disson as Lisa and Zoe Heran as Laure/Mikael in TOMBOY, a film by Celine Sciamma. Picture courtesy Rocket Releasing. All rights reserved.


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Tomboy (2011)

Opened: 11/16/2011 Limited

Film Forum/NYC11/16/2011 - 12/08/201123 days
Laemmle's Roya...11/25/2011 - 12/08/201114 days
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Laemmle's Play...11/25/2011 - 12/01/20117 days
Kendall Square...12/02/2011 - 12/22/201121 days
Cinema Village...12/09/2011 - 12/15/20117 days
Music Box Thea...01/27/2012 - 02/02/20127 days

Trailer: Click for trailer

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Genre: French Drama (French w/English subtitles)

Rated: Unrated


In TOMBOY, filmmaker Celine Sciamma's ("Water Lilies") second feature, a family with two daughters, 10-year-old Laure (Zoe Heran) and 6-year-old Jeanne (Malonn Levana), moves to a new suburban neighborhood during the summer holidays. With her Jean Seberg haircut and tomboy ways, Laure is immediately mistaken for a boy by the local kids, and decides to pass herself off as "Mikael," a boy different enough to catch the attention of the leader of the pack, Lisa (Jeanne Disson), who becomes smitten.

At home with her parents (Mathieu Demy and Sophie Cattani) and girlie younger sister, she is Laure: hanging out with her new pals and girlfriend, she is Mikael. Finding resourceful ways to hide her true self, Laure takes advantage of her new identity, as if the end of the summer would never reveal her unsettling secret. Sciamma brings a light and charming touch to this contemporary coming-of-age story, which is also about relationships between children, children and parents, and the even more complicated one between one's heart and body.

About the Production

At some point, most people have the experience of being the "new kid" in town. For a fourth grader just beginning to discover grown-up feelings of love and attraction -- like Laure, the hero of Celine Sciamma's contemporary coming-of-age film TOMBOY -- the transition to making new friends in a new home can be particularly challenging. Laure's world is already filled with confusion and transition, as her mother and father are distracted by the impending arrival of a new baby. So perhaps it doesn't seem that unusual when Laure, with her short haircut, athletic frame, and reserved nature is mistaken for a boy by the kids who live in her suburban housing development. She introduces herself as "Mikael" and begins a summer-long experiment in trying to fit in by passing herself off as something she is not.

TOMBOY, from filmmaker Celine Sciamma, is a story that reveals unexpected truths about relationships between children, parents, friends, and siblings, and how the most compelling and challenging discoveries about one's self can be at once totally surprising and blatantly obvious. Sciamma's first film, "Water Lilies," was a sensitive and nuanced exploration of three adolescent girls discovering their sexual identity, and was nominated for three Cesar awards. With TOMBOY, Sciamma's heroine is even younger, and, as the new kid on the block, has an even more compelling and universal desire to be accepted on her own terms.

"I built the film around a very strong and simple argument," explains Sciamma, "the story of a lie, an undercover character, so that it would produce a powerful story with suspense and empathy. It allowed me to take the time to relate a vivid chronicle about childhood, with documentary aspects, and unpredictable accidents." Sciamma also asserts that the child's age should not be an issue when asking deep and mature questions about the nature of gender and identity. "Childhood is often referred to as the age of innocence," she says. "But I think it's a time of life full of sensuality and ambiguous emotions. I wanted to portray that." Indeed, as young Laure -- as Mikael -- first begins to play with his new neighborhood friends, they are immersed as much in playful, explorational games such as "Truth or Dare," where kissing and sharing the same piece of gum produce reactions of both desire and disgust, as they are with playing football or rough-housing at the local swimming hole.

Sciamma's script is almost primitive in its beauty and simplicity. In the expositional moments of the film, young Laure (not initially identified by name) introduces herself (as "Mikael") to tall, welcoming Lisa. All signs seem to indicate that the new kid is a boy, just a normal fourth grader trying to adjust to a new set of friends. But seen bathing with her sister, Laure's biological gender is revealed. For the remainder of the film, that secret shared by audience and character -- and eventually by Jeanne, who inadvertently discovers her sister's ruse and plays along -- creates a sense of suspense and tension that is as poignant as it is gripping. At nearly every turn, Laure's secret might be revealed -- how to tailor her girl's bathing suit (and what it covers) to look like a boy's, how to urinate outdoors like the other boys, how to convince a confused Jeanne to not reveal her secret. But the end of the summer also means that Laure will start school: as the other children discuss classroom assignments and wonder why Mikael's name is not on the class lists, Laure begins to sense that her carefully protected identity might soon fall apart.

"Our very first concern was the casting," says Sciamma. "We had to find a little girl who would be convincing as a boy, and who could perform." The clock was also ticking on what was designed to be a simple and quick production process. "I wrote the script in three weeks, and designed it so it would be simple to prepare in a short time frame -- two main sets, fifty sequences," she explains. "I started writing at the end of March and we wanted to shoot in August, and the film was shot in twenty days with a crew of fifteen. We wanted to believe it was possible to work in a different energy than the long journey of writing and financing for years." But could they find a suitable lead actress with only a few weeks before the cameras were to start rolling? Making it even more difficult, French production regulations meant that it would take several weeks to get the necessary paperwork approved to allow the underage cast members to perform during the summer. "(Casting director Christel Baras) accepted the challenge, knowing that we didn't have the time to go hunting in schools, so we met children who were already registered with agencies."

"I know it's going to sound like one of those romantic stories that people tell about casting," continues Sciamma, "but it's true. The very first day of casting we met with Zoe Heran and she got the part. She came in with her boyish attitudes, her true love of football, and her very long hair. We didn't even have our full financing yet, but when I met her, I knew I would do the movie, whatever it took, because of her."

With her hair shorn into a boyish bob, Heran's photogenic features meant that she could be both charming and believably shy as both Laure and Mikael, her natural girlish pout evolving into a young boy's scowl. But TOMBOY required more than just a single believable child performer. In a film with only a few scenes with adults, Mikael's world is filled with children of various ages and races, as one would expect from a contemporary suburb. Perhaps even more difficult than casting Laure/Mikael was finding an even younger actor to play the main supporting role of Jeanne. A buoyant, curly-haired moppet with a huge imagination, an unabashed affection for her older sibling, and an unconscious desire to fit into a new world (that will soon include a new baby), the part was written with complexity and nuance that is usually beyond the ken of even adult actors. The talkative Jeanne also probably has the most dialogue in the film, as the pre-adolescent characters tend to have awkward and brief exchanges marked by silence.

"We met with a number of six year-old girls who were tremendously cute, but it was hard to tell whether they were able to commit to the part," Sciamma remembers. "There had to be chemistry between her and Zoe, and a feeling of trust between them. We quickly set our minds on Malonn Levana. I liked the way she spoke...she could sound very mature and was very bright. The sisterhood in the film is very much inspired from my own experience, and I had strong expectations about the relationship between these two characters."

Their contacts with French talent agencies, however, proved vexing when finding someone to play the role of Lisa. Taller, and maturing faster than the boys in her peer group, it is Lisa who first makes contact with Mikael and invites him into the neighborhood circle, clearly hoping to establish a connection that might develop into something more than friendship. "I wasn't convinced by the girls we saw," explains Sciamma. "They were too conscious about how pretty they were. I wanted an awkward little girl, not a princess. The casting director knew Jeanne Disson from real life -- I met her and two days later, she was on board." It is in the scenes with Lisa that the tension surrounding Laure's secret becomes most evident: in one scene, Lisa puts makeup on Mikael's face and remarks that he would make a very pretty girl, and Laure's silence in that moment speaks volumes as to the complexity of her desires and struggle with keeping her secret.

"For the rest of the kids, we decided to cast Zoe's real friends. I was still in the process of finishing the script when we met them, and didn't feel like I had to make a selection. By taking them all, we bet on their true friendship and their long-time chemistry." That proved a deft move, as although the children initially needed to act as if Mikael was a stranger, his eventual immersion into the group soon renders him an accepted part of the gang, only making the possible revelation of his true gender that much more dynamic. Learning that Mikael is really a girl would mean more than the loss of face for the film's hero -- it would mean shattering the group's trust with each other, a harsh recognition of the complexities of the adult world that lurk just around the corner from all of them.

Shooting on a limited schedule and budget did not mean sacrificing quality for Sciamma. What she could not do with money and time, she did with strong production design, led by cinematographer Crystel Fournier, who had shot "Water Lilies" as well as a number of documentaries, and production designer Thomas Grezaud. "We worked on simple color choices. We had to shoot two or three sequences a day with a very small time frame, because of the regulations on working with the children. It would normally call for the use of a hand-held camera, but I decided to do otherwise, designing the sequences around mostly stable frames. I didn't want to give up on stylization, even though it was simple and discreet. That lead us to the Canon 7D camera; I like its small depth of field and its treatment of colors. It's also cheaper and lighter, so it fit our philosophy: shooting a feature film with a photo camera would be very's an aesthetic of here and now."

Another bold choice came with the film's soundtrack -- which aside from some songs heard on Lisa's stereo, is almost absent of a traditional film score. Although hardly the style of cinema verite, the lack of music and the careful, composed framing render the scenes of the children playing football or swimming with an almost documentary-like clarity, as the camera lingers on the action without the constant manipulation of image and sound that many contemporary filmmakers rely upon for dramatic effect.

For a film about the complex representations of childhood identity and desire, TOMBOY remains largely apolitical and unjudgmental towards Laure and the people in her life. Her loving and accepting parents at first offer her a safe place to explore her developing feelings -- though as they begin to suspect their daughter's actions, that patience is tested. So, too, do Mikael's friends find it difficult to process the mixed signals of their new friend's behavior, torn between accepting him as a friend (and for Lisa, as a possible boyfriend), and judging him as an outsider who is curiously shy and private. That delicate balance between the sincere exploration of childhood and the sometimes harsh transition into maturity is likely what has led to the film winning awards at the Berlin International Film Festival (the TEDDY Jury Award), the Odessa International Film Festival, and International Gay and Lesbian Film Festivals at San Francisco, Philadelphia, and Torino.

"There's a lot of pressure surrounding a second feature film," concedes Celine Sciamma. "They say it's the hardest one to make, and I could definitely feel that pressure. I was anxious about that traditional career path that leads you to a bigger budget, as if things must get heavier. I liked the idea of a second film that was less expensive than the first, lighter, that in the process of making more films you gain autonomy and liberty." In that sense, Sciamma's journey mirrors that of TOMBOY's protagonist: one that finds a determined and passionate soul desperate to find acceptance by going against the grain. Though Laure's life as a little boy might not be considered complete as TOMBOY ends, Celine Sciamma's talent and identity as a powerful filmmaker seems more solid and promising than ever.