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A new twist on coming of age: A French girl struggles with gender identity

tomboy Jeanne Disson (left) and Zoé Héran in “Tomboy,’’ a film by Céline Sciamma. Below: Héran with Mathieu Demy. (Rocket Releasing)
By Ty Burr
Globe Staff / December 2, 2011
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The conventions and clichés of the French coming-of-age movie have been hammered into place ever since François Truffaut rewound his own childhood in 1959’s “The 400 Blows.’’ “Tomboy,’’ surprisingly, adds a new wrinkle. Its main character isn’t just struggling to grow up but to decide how to grow up - as a boy or a girl.

If that sounds politicized or agenda-driven, the film is anything but. Writer-director Céline Sciamma sets her story in a hushed, mysterious world of late-summer sunlight and childhood games; “Tomboy’’ is as visually beautiful as its 10-year-old heroine is defiantly plain. The camera never leaves the apartment complex in the French countryside to which her family has just moved, and the soundtrack is rich with birdsong and wind. Wilderness is just beyond the threshold, temporarily tamed by kids running through the greenery and enjoying the final moments of youth.

When we first see Laure (Zoé Héran), she’s in the lap of her father (Mathieu Demy, son of directors Jacques Demy and Agnès Varda) driving the family car to her new home. With her close-cropped hair and tank tops, she’s daddy’s girl or, more properly, daddy’s boy. For her, relocation means a clean slate, and she impulsively introduces herself to the other kids in the complex as “Mikael.’’ She’s skinny and athletic, and the boys are too busy playing their rough, improvised games. No one notices, although Lisa (Jeanne Disson), the sole girl in the group, takes a shine to this watchful newcomer.

The film contrasts Laure/Mikael’s deepening imposture with the girl’s warm and intimate home life. Her mother (Sophie Cattani) is nine months pregnant, on bed rest, and vaguely anxious about her older daughter’s sexlessness. In a touch Truffaut himself would have applauded, younger sister Jeanne (Malonn Lévana) becomes an equally touching figure as she tries to keep a secret too big for a 6-year-old to grasp. Lévana, who’s both adorable and a fine actress, is uncomplicatedly girly, and her adored sibling’s troubles are exciting and unsettling in equal measure.

The quiet emotional fulcrum of “Tomboy’’ actually belongs to Jeanne, in a scene where this very young girl understands she has to lie to her parents for the first time and a divide opens up at her feet. Laure, for her part, has been lying in one way or another her entire life, and the film is explicitly, if poetically, about the consequences of taking that lie public for the first time. Héran’s naive stoicism in the role is heartbreaking: She and we know she’ll be found out eventually, but don’t we all want to believe the last days of summer can go on forever?

Sciamma keeps the sensations immediate and the camera at child’s-eye level. The only hint of the wider world comes when Lisa puts on a dinky pop tune to dance in her room with her new boyfriend. In a later scene, she playfully puts makeup on “Mikael,’’ and the crosscurrents of gender and intent, disguise and revelation, grow stunningly complex. Lisa thinks she’s breaking a taboo while Laure’s mother is just relieved her daughter’s showing signs of femininity. For Laure, it’s merely another stretch of vast middle ground to negotiate on the way to figuring out who she is.

Some of that middle ground is tersely comic: An invitation to go swimming with the boys leads to a use for Play-Doh that Hasbro probably wouldn’t sanction. Mostly, though, Sciamma is interested in watching Laure deal with the world and the world deal with Laure. The film’s one weakness is an ending that feels both pat and unfocused, but that’s only because this story doesn’t have an ending yet. Laure’s journey is just beginning, and “Tomboy’’ is simply a lovely, observant prelude.

Ty Burr can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @tyburr.

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Written and directed by:

Céline Sciamma

Starring: Zoé Héran, Malonn Lévana, Jeanne Disson, Sophie Cattani, Mathieu Demy

At: Kendall Square

Running time: 82 minutes

Unrated (as PG-13: brief,

nonsexual adolescent nudity)

In French, with subtitles

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