Celine Sciamma’s "Tomboy" takes a sensitive, non-agenda-pushing look at young Laure’s (Zoe Harens) life as "Mikael," the new kid in a French suburb, where boys are romping through woods and fields, enjoying their last days of freedom before the new school year. A pretty ten-year-old named Lisa (Jeanne Disson)--the only girl in the pack--encounters Laure, assumes she’s a boy and asks "his" name. Laure plays along, saying her name is Mikael. As the summer progresses, Lisa develops a crush on "Mikael," who not only can roughhouse with the best of them, but also has no problem fitting in with the boys on every level, even if she has to put a little clay bulge in her bathing suit when they go swimming. Not long after Lisa and "Mikael" share an innocuous first kiss, Laure’s secret gets blown wide open after moms get called in to address a fight that Laure/Mikael has had with another boy.
But was Laure lying about being a boy or is she a boy at heart? Or is she just a tomboy who’ll grow out of it? Or should she grow out of it at all?
One of the many refreshing things about Sciamma’s film is that it leaves all these questions open while presenting scenarios in a most patient and even-handed way. "Tomboy" employs the subtle technique of other great contemporary French films, like Olivier Assayas’ "L’Heure d’été," where a slow camera slides across simple scenes that contain sparse dialogue, expanding the audience’s capacity for contemplation. Rather than being rattled by the child’s gender dysphoria like the family and town in Alain Berliner’s "Ma Vie en Rose," Laure’s family is loving and kind, the neighborhood kids seem alright, and we leave with the sense that she’ll be able to negotiate identity questions without suffering Brandon Teena’s fate.