Quiet films about growing up hit all the right notes

Zoe Heran in Tomboy. Image: Rocket Releasing.


The opening sequence to Tomboy shows us childhood. The child riding in the car does what most children would–smiles at the sunshine and breeze on their face, lets their hands float in the air as the wind pushes them. When the father lets the child sit on his lap and steer, the viewer feels the same secret thrill of doing something sort of dangerous and completely freeing and fun. Tomboy is full of these moments, and the film’s success hinges on the audience’s ability to remember what it is like to be the new kid and to have a secret.

[SPOILER ALERT] As the film, directed by Céline Sciamma, unrolls a little more, we find out that the new boy in town is really a girl, Laure. He introduces himself to the other kids as Mickael and none of them suspect anything. But, throughout the film, the audience shares his fear of being discovered and rejected by the kids. There are scenes where he’s playing soccer with the other boys and his pastel underwear shows above the waistband of his shorts, which are also missing a button. The audience waits for the obvious pants-falling-down scene, but it doesn’t happen. Throughout the movie we wait for the obvious, but the filmmakers always surprise us with a small twist, such as when Mickael’s sister Jeanne (cuter-than-a-button Malonn Levana) figures out what he’s up to and decides to play along.

As a transperson, I could relate to the joy and freedom Laure feels when living as Mickael. When Mickael strips off his shirt to be like the other boys on the soccer field, there is a moment’s fear that some sign of breast development will tell the others the truth, but no one notices anything and they run on, playing in the summer sun. We see that athletic Mickael enjoys his body and its strength. He is constantly in motion–playing games with the boys on the playground, swimming, or just horsing around at home. These scenes hit home for me because I was a very active, athletic child, but as soon as puberty came along and my body bloomed into a woman’s, I stopped playing, not wanting to be constantly reminded of the body I was so uncomfortable in by having breasts that bounced and swayed with every move.

I could also relate to the quieter scenes, such as where Mickael scrutinizes himself in the mirror, looking for the outward signs his body will betray him soon. Or, where he sits through a session where the neighbor girl puts makeup on him because he has a crush on her, but can’t express it.

Another place where the play with secrecy works is when Mickael gets the idea to make himself a penis out of play dough so he can fill out his bathing suit before a trip to the lake with the rest of the kids. His sister wants to know what he’s making and he has to find a way to keep her occupied so he can finish working before their mother comes in. The following scene at the lake is full tension as we wait for something to go wrong with Mickael’s suit.

Eventually, summer has to come to an end and school and the discovery of Mickael’s secret loom on the horizon. I won’t spoil that part for you, but will say the film has a more optimistic end than I was expecting.

More about the movie

Noa Rotstein as Ellie and Dalena Le as Thuy in Foreign Letters. image from IndieWire

Foreign Letters

Ela Their’s 2012 film, Foreign Letters, is a small film that hits all the right notes. Set in the early 1980s, the film tells the story of Ellie, a 12-year-old Israeli girl whose family has relocated to the United States to avoid participating in the First Lebanon War. Homesick Ellie writes letters to her best friend, telling her about her new home and the strange things she sees in American culture. Many of these are sadly funny, such as when she writes, “In America, people put expensive things outside on Tuesday,” accompanied by a scene of her mother digging through other people’s trash piles to collect furniture for their new home. Some are funny because they underline the American expectation that everyone in the world is Christian: “In December, the Americans have a holiday where people put trees inside their houses. I don’t believe that’s true, but if I see someone put a tree inside their house, I’ll let you know.”*

The first part of the film shows Ellie’s alienation in her new home, where she doesn’t understand the language or the rituals and culture. She also has to deal with the general meanness of middle school age girls. It is implied that even if she spoke perfect English, the fact that she has curly red hair and is Jewish would each be enough to get her picked on by the class queen bee.

Ellie quietly observes another girl in her class, Thuy, and senses they may have  a common bond in their difference. She screws up her courage to approach Thuy and finds resistance at first, but Ellie’s persistence pays off. Soon, the girls are best friends, spending afternoons and weekends together as Thuy teaches Ellie English and explains American culture to her. Thuy’s family immigrated from Vietnam, and she is a few years ahead of Ellie in becoming immersed in American culture, yet she remains disconnected from everyone at school because of her status as an immigrant and her own shame at her family’s financial status.

Conflict arises between the two girls as they negotiate their social standing and experience moments of shared betrayal. Yet, like children are able to do, they grant each other forgiveness and eventually find a true bond that takes them into adulthood.

The slice-of-life autobiographical film closes with footage and snapshots of director Ela Their with her friends as adults. Including the evidence of the enduring friendship gives the film a final note of hope.

* My memory may be faulty … these are approximations of the dialogue.

More about the movie

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Both of these films work because, at the heart, they tell universal stories. My sons sat down to watch the movies with me even though I hadn’t asked them to. They usually want to watch things with monsters, explosions, and special effects, but they were engaged by the honest storytelling. It didn’t matter that main characters in both films were female, because the films aren’t pitched to a gendered viewer. Anyone can relate to the theme of growing up and negotiating one’s place in the community. Both films are currently available for streaming on Netflix.

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