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.

REVIEW: Girlhood

24 02 2015

GirlhoodWriter/director Céline Sciamma’s third feature bears the title “Bande de Filles” in its native French tongue, which translates roughly to band (or group) of girls.  Yet the English release of the film gives it this name: “Girlhood.”  The title seems not only ill-fitting but also begging for immediate foiling against Richard Linklater’s “Boyhood.”

Such a comparison is facile and does a disservice to Sciamma’s wonderfully observed film.  She does not aim to provide a wide-ranging snapshot of female youth.  “Girlhood” is less about one girl, be she specific or a stand-in for all women, and more about gendered group dynamics filtered through the experience of the protagonist, Marieme (Karidja Touré).  Sciamma’s work does resemble many other great films, however.

“Girlhood” recalls Tina Fey’s insightful script for “Mean Girls,” which also focuses on a troublemaking quartet of girls.  Both depict the ways in which either one person can set the tone for an entire group – or a paralysis of groupthink can conduct the unit.  Perhaps the most memorable scene in “Girlhood,” save a lip-sync rendition of “Diamonds” by Rhianna, occurs when the clique encounters a former member who was exiled when she became pregnant.  Group identity is everything for these adolescent girls, until it is nothing.

“Girlhood” recalls Catherine Hardwicke’s hard-hitting “Thirteen,” an intense drama that follows two taboo-shattering teen girls down a rabbit hole of drug abuse and promiscuity.  Admittedly, this connection is more superficial.  Sciamma shows her main characters committing some questionable acts, but they do not necessarily define them as people.

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