F.I.L.M. of the Week (June 11, 2015)

11 06 2015

TomboyCaitlyn Jenner’s very public transition has brought a big spotlight to transgender issues and rights, although some of the discourse (from all sides) seems to reduce her to a mere cultural object.  When such rhetoric arises, it becomes easy to lose sight of the humanity that all people possess irrespective of how they choose to identify their gender or sexuality.  In this void, cinema can step in to help bridge the empathy gap.

Trans issues are not exclusively the domain of 65-year-old reality stars, as Céline Sciamma’s “Tomboy” happily points out.  The film follows a ten year old child, gendered female at birth and given the name Laure (Zoé Héran), who chooses to identify and present himself as Mikael.  When his family moves to a new town in France one summer, he sees it as the perfect opportunity to establish and assume the identity he feels inside (unbeknownst to his parents).

Sciamma’s tender, gentle portrait of Mikael’s explorations into the thorny territory of self-actualization makes for a more than worthy “F.I.L.M. of the Week.”  This is a film for the books.  As it quietly observes the anguish and anxiety surrounding whether or not Mikael’s projection of his true self will be rejected by his peers, “Tomboy” invites personal reflection as well.  Mikael looks at himself often in the mirror, and Sciamma holds up that same mirror to the audience.

The film, perhaps more cogently than any fictional film I have seen, illuminates how gender is socially constructed and vigorously performed.  Masculinity, in particular, requires a Brando-esque commitment to character as early as childhood.  Otherwise, the strongest performers pass extreme judgment on those who cannot enact a convincing enough front.

“Tomboy” is incredibly specific to Mikael’s struggles, to be clear.  Can he take off his shirt at a soccer game without being discovered?  Can he wear a bathing suit without raising questions about what lies between his legs?  How should he respond to a girl with a bit of a crush on him?  How can he urinate without exposing female genitalia?  For all those who believe their gender lines up with their assigned sexuality, the film makes us aware of the enormous privilege of normalcy in everyday activity.

But Sciamma’s genius lies in making Mikael’s experience evoke every child’s grappling with their private feelings and public persona.  We all hope others will define us by our positive characteristics but fear they will latch on to aspects that make us feel insecure.  Watching “Tomboy,” I was reminded of my own youth, where I faced taunting for my short, stocky build as well as my lack of skill and interest in athletic competition.  While these struggles are in no way comparable to the enormous violence and hatred directed towards transgender people all over the world, finding a shared experience is a good first step towards building rapport and understanding.

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