A sensitive portrait of childhood just before pubescence — when bodies and identities are still fluid — Tomboy astutely explores the freedom, however brief, of being untethered to the highly rule-bound world of gender codes.
About 20 minutes elapse before we learn the real name and biological sex of a gangly, short-haired kid about to go into fourth grade. Laure (a revelatory Zoé Héran) is first seen getting driving lessons from her father (Mathieu Demy, himself once an adorable, gender-blurring child performer in films by his mother, Agnès Varda). Laure's family — which includes an extremely pregnant mother (Sophie Cattani) and 6-year-old, pink-obsessed sister Jeanne (Malonn Lévana) — has just moved, not for the first time, to a suburban apartment complex a few weeks before the school year begins. They're a tight, loving, supportive nuclear unit: The parents try to assuage any unease their children might have about their new home and the new baby; Laure is a devoted, protective older sibling to Jeanne. The clan's relocation provides Laure an opportunity for reinvention, introducing herself to her neighbors and playmates as Mikael — an identity that gives her the liberty to go shirtless and rassle with the other boys, attracting the attention of crushed-out Lisa (Jeanne Disson), the same age as Laure but already sprouting breasts.
The second movie by writer-director Céline Sciamma, Tomboy is expansive and relaxed, a marked contrast to her debut, the promising but overdetermined and airless Water Lilies (2007), which centered on the erupting desires of a trio of 15-year-old girls. Sciamma shows a real gift for capturing kids at play, an arena that is simultaneously anarchic and regimented. She and her cinematographer, Crystel Fournier, film the August afternoons devoted to truth or dare, capture the flag, soccer, and water fights as their own otherworldly time zone — idyllic, adult-free hours when hierarchies are formed, toppled, and reconfigured.
But Sciamma doesn't present a sanitized, uncomplicated view of childhood. Although Laure's hormone production hasn't yet surged, her developmental stage isn't wholly innocent. Laure/Mikael, beginning to reciprocate Lisa's smitten feelings, lives in anxiety of being found out as much as she revels in being a boy. Worried that she'll have to think of an excuse not to go swimming with her friends, she soon proves adept at sex subterfuge, cutting her one-piece bathing suit into Speedo-like briefs and filling it with a tiny appendage she made out of Play-Doh (which, after the lake adventure, she hides as a keepsake in a small box that contains her baby teeth).
When Laure's gender illusion is inevitably exposed, Sciamma handles it with a mostly light touch, even though these scenes include Tomboy's most unbearable moment: her mother demanding that she wear a dress as they go door-to-door, explaining to her pals and their parents who Mikael really is. The lightly ruffled blue tunic might as well be a hair shirt.
The tough love doled out by Laure's mother and the taunts by her buddies that follow are undeniably heartbreaking. Extremely empathic, Tomboy isn't simply an earnest plea for tolerance, though: Its detailed, nuanced observations about kids' capacity for cruelty and understanding suggest divisions more complicated than just bullies versus victims. Childhood itself, the film intimates, is full of ambiguities (if not as extreme as Laure's), of sorting out what you are drawn to and what repels you — all subject to change by the minute. A hopeful, not saccharine, ending leaves the impression that Laure will have not only the support of both her friends and family but also the psychic space to be exactly what she wants to be. Which is something she has yet to determine.