When she moves with her family to a new town, the tomboyish 10-year-old Laure impulsively tells the neighborhood children that she is "Mikael." Soon enough, she is roughhousing with the boys, spitting, scoring at soccer and even kissing a girl. It is a wonderful summer of freedom, as Laure tries on a new, more comfortable identity in the adult-free space of lazy days spent playing in the woods.
Writer-director Céline Sciamma's film tackles some relatively complex and controversial issues — about gender identity; the capacity of children to accept — and reject — difference; and what role family has in smoothing the path of a child who wants to be someone else. Yet the work is never preachy or dogmatic; if anything, Tomboy is deceptively ethereal, at times as drowsy and unstructured as the summer days it portrays.
It's sweet, wise and adult in its treatment; this is no bosom-heaving melodrama. Sciamma's languid style helps, but the young actress Zoé Héran, who plays Laure/Mikael, is remarkable. She never once articulates her discomfort at being a girl, the exhilaration she feels being a boy or the dread that her secret will be found out (as it surely will be). Yet we read everything, achingly clear, on her tiny freckled face. In French, with subtitles. Starts Fri., Jan. 20. Harris