Films: ‘Tomboy’ and ‘The Challengers’

I’ve just finished watching the 2011 French film ‘Tomboy‘, with Zoé Héran. While watching, I was reminded of the Canadian-made TV movie ‘The Challengers‘ (which stars a young Gema Zamprogna and the always brilliant Eric Christmas — check out the trailer), as the themes of the two films dovetail.

The latter film was made in a different era, and, I suspect, with far different intentions.

Both films star a girl who dresses as and passes for a boy. In ‘Tomboy’, Laure is settling into her new home outside Paris, and when she meets the gang of kids nearby, she decides to call herself Mikael. In ‘The Challengers’, Mackie is settling in a new town after the death of her father, and her interest in the local gang of boys, and a previous history of dressing as a boy for talent shows (she does a mean Cory Hart ‘Sunglasses at Night’) inspires her to dress as a boy, Mackie’s cousin ‘Mac Dales’.

(note the awesome 1980s clothes & hairstyles lol)

Where the two films split is the intention of the filmmaker. ‘The Challengers’ is really more about a story of a girl who is mourning her father; all the gender roles and other characters are incredibly hetero-normative, and (look, I’m going to spoil things here because this film is old) the resolution is very happy family TV-movie-esque: Mackie stops dressing as a boy and gets over her grief and is accepted in her new community. Her dressing as a boy is a phase of her grief, of wanting to become someone else. There’s no real hint of it being a strong part of her gender identity. Heck, the filmmakers probably didn’t even consider the concept of gender identity.

I’ve watched ‘The Challengers’ about a million times, so much so that I could probably recite whole sections of the film from memory (it was a standby for family programming on CBC, plus we had it on VHS when I was a kid). I wish that films like ‘Tomboy’ had been around, with their more gender-fluid interpretations.

‘Tomboy’, on the other hand… its intentions are different from the beginning. When we first meet Laure (and until she’s addressed in the feminine, some minutes into the film), it’s very easy to think she is a boy. She has short hair, wears boys shorts and vests and trainers, and she’s just young enough that she hasn’t begun to develop. If I hadn’t read the blurb about the film on Zip, I wouldn’t have even known up front that she was a girl.

There’s a greater sense of gender identity in this film; Laure has to measure up to the boys, she fights one of them and wins, she takes off her shirt while playing football. But of course, it’s only a matter of time before the truth is found out.

Interestingly, the reactions of the parents are pretty similar. A lot of denial about what their daughters are doing, and an insistence upon ‘proper’ gender roles. Mackie is told ‘No more Mac.’ Laure is given a dress to wear instead of her usual shorts and vest. However, I think that Laure’s mother is far more understanding in that she tells Laure that she doesn’t care if Laure wants to dress as a boy, except that she’ll be starting the school year and it would come out then anyway.

Where these films excel is in showing what boys and girls go through, and how their lives are affected by how others see them. There are certain things expected of a boy: he’s to be tough, no crying over small bumps and bruises (like Jonathan getting a fish hook in his palm in ‘The Challengers’), he must play football, he must be able to fight, that sort of thing. And girls… it’s dresses and an interest in makeup, and boys, a sensitivity that boys aren’t supposed to possess (or at least, admit to). Both films (though ‘Tomboy’ perhaps more than ‘The Challengers’) let the viewer think on these differences, and why certain roles are expected.

Can you recommend any films that deal with similar ideas and issues?

Movie: Rust & Bone (De rouille et d’os)

I wasn’t sure what to expect of this film, having only read the barest of blurbs before I saw it as a part of the Calgary International Film Festival. It caught my notice because it was French language, and it stars Marion Cotillard, who has become one of my favourite French actresses in the last few years. (See in her ‘La Môme’ as Piaf, and in ‘Public Enemies’ as Billie Frechette, among other films, if you are not yet acquainted with Ms. Cotillard.)

This film did not disappoint. Well, maybe a tad. Everything was great except for the character of Ali. Now, I’m going to get into spoilery detail, so click below to continue at your own risk. Aside from my criticism of Ali’s character, I highly recommend going to see this film. It is fantastic. (Check out the trailer on Youtube.)

The basic premise is that Ali (Alain) moves with his son to the south, and meets Stephanie, a killer whale trainer who has suffered a tragic accident and lost her lower legs. Stephanie’s journey and the progression of her journey is incredibly compelling, and Marion Cotillard plays it subtly; her emotions are portrayed in her body movement and in her face. It’s hard to explain, but she is so fully Stephanie, and I was completely entranced. But Ali… I just don’t know….

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