In 1972 I got a Chelsea football strip for my ninth birthday -- a present that left those simpering dress-up dolls like Barbie and Sindy well and truly in the shade. Like the heroine of Céline Sciamma's gender-bending drama Tomboy, I loved kicking a ball around and playing Happy Families with my dad. But trying to pass myself off as a boy would have been as unthinkable as setting fire to my Donny Osmond posters.
With her cropped blonde hair, baggy T-shirt and shorts, 10-year-old Laure (Zoé Héran) looks like the older brother of six-year-old Jeanne (the gorgeous Malonn Lévana). When the family moves to a new apartment in the suburbs of Paris, a bored Laure watches kids from the estate playing nearby and longs to join in. She gets her chance to join the group, thanks to Lisa (Jeanne Disson), who's obviously attracted to this shy newcomer. But Lisa assumes she's talking to a boy, an error that turns into a lie when Laure identifies herself as "Mickäel".
Sciamma deftly handles Laure's attempts to master the subtleties of masculine behaviour, as she tries to fit in with her new friends. Honing your spitting skills in the privacy of the bathroom is one thing, but getting just the right level of "padding" for your swimming trunks proves trickier. (A tub of Play-Doh saves her blushes.) Tomboy balances these moments of humour with the very real sense of humiliation Laure feels when she gets caught peeing in the woods. As the summer holiday unfolds and one potential crisis follows another, there's a nagging feeling that this deception will soon be uncovered.
When I first saw writer/director Sciamma's second feature, it seemed like one of those rare films that is perfect both in concept and execution. Those are not words I use lightly. If anything, the modest charms of Tomboy look even better on DVD. A short but informative interview with Sciamma reveals her to be totally in command of every aspect of the film-making process.
As with her impressive debut Water Lilies (2007), Sciamma has taken a young and inexperienced group of actors and made them interact in a way that feels completely authentic. There's a refreshing lack of self-consciousness about the way Zoé Héran and Malonn Lévana play together in the apartment as the "chalk and cheese" sisters. Héran has to carry the weight of the storyline here, yet she manages to convey all the fragility of a confused 10-year-old and the audacity needed to maintain her alter ego.
In Water Lilies, the brooding heroine projected her gaze onto the blonde goddess at the centre of a girls' synchronised swimming team. The lesbian element in Tomboy is less overt -- though some may disagree. But clearly Lisa knows from the outset that there's something a bit different about her new friend -- she even says as much. Later she plasters Laure's face with make-up and then declares "You look great as a girl". That could be a hint that she knows Laure's real identity or an acknowledgement of her own ambivalence about kissing Mickäel.
It's to Sciamma's credit that she's packed so many nuances into an 80-minute film made on such a limited budget. Above all, this is an affecting portrait of a happy family that doesn't resort to sentimentality or soap-opera melodramatics. Laure's relationships with her doting dad (Mathieu Demy) and pregnant mum (Sophie Cattani) are particularly well drawn, although they get limited screen time.
I hope no one offers Sciamma millions of dollars (or euros) to make a big, dumb Hollywood blockbuster. On the evidence of Tomboy and its beguiling heroine, small is beautiful.
Tomboy is released on DVD and Blu-ray by Peccadillo Pictures on 5 March 2012.