French Director Céline Sciamma made a splash (hoho) a couple of years ago with Water Lillies and her new film Tomboy sticks with the pre-pubescent female theme, receiving its North American premiere at this year’s LA Film Festival.

Laure is a 10 year-old girl – a tomboy – newly moved to a new town, who tells the local kids she’s called Michael. She’s still a lanky, unformed thing, so playing soccer topless poses no threat to her deception (though swimming trunks require a play-doh prosthesis, amusingly). We don’t know why she’s a tomboy but nor do we need toto; she is close with her kind and loving father but that can scarcely be the reason.

Her decision actually to pass as a boy seems spur of the moment – less decision than childish impulse; her clear blue eyes are searching and intelligent but apparently unable to conceive of ramifications to her behaviour. The marvelously self-possessed Zoé Héran is outstanding, childishly steadfast, and when she is inevitably forced to put on a dress, her whole demeanor is almost animal in its naturalness – not a powerful animal, perhaps, but one caught and coiled between anger and fear. Backed up by sure direction and pacing, a little bit of visual poetry and fine support from Mathieu Demy and Sophie Cattani as the parents, Héran gives a stunning performance of childhood torn between conviction and uncertainty.

Laure has a little sister, a curly-haired cherub with giant lash-frilled eyes, and she’s far too cute for my tolerance. But she is an amusing presence and an amusingly facile liar and, as with Laure, there’s a real sweetness in her pleasure at having other kids to play with (a thrill that they’re older too, and a bursting pride in her big brother). The sisters love to horse around together at home also, but there’s likewise more footage of kids at play than I care to watch: the point that they – and Laure specifically – are kids like any others is quickly made.

But the flipside is that she is not like the other kids; she feels, presumably, born into the wrong body, and has only the barest hesitation in kissing her (female) friend, an act that the other children find abhorrent in their incomprehension. The tale is slight, observational rather than probing, but its gentle tone and terrific central performance allow the wider ramifications to be felt.

Rating: 7.65/10

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