Céline Sciamma’s 2007 directorial debut, “Water Lillies,” delicately explored the awakening of female urges among a group of feisty teenage girls. Sciamma’s follow-up, the similarly heartfelt “Tomboy,” moves back in time to unearth the same fundamental experiences of an adolescent. In a phenomenally unguarded performance, Zoé Heran plays shy 10-year-old Laure, whose family moves to a new town in the heat of summer, just in time for her to create a new identity.
Sporting a trim hairdo and gender-neutral clothing, Laure immediately embodies the title character, and likes it. Introducing herself to new playground friend as “Mikael,” Laure becomes comfortably entrenched in her new identity while the inevitability that her secret must come out grows exponentially.
There’s not a whole lot beyond the basic premise of “Tomboy,” and anyone familiar with the trailer or even the self-explanatory poster can probably get the gist of this light, touching portrait of early sexual awakening. However, Sciamma excels at keeping the movie’s bare essentials in place, turning “Tomboy” into a pitch-perfect sketch. Heran’s spectacular embodiment of a young girl at odds with the expectations placed on her gender calls to mind transgendered actress Harmony Santana in “Gun Hill Road,” released earlier this year. In both cases, the distinct physicality of the actresses create an authentic foundation for everything else on the screen.
The feelings Laure can’t yet verbalize register in her distant, searching gaze. Although a small plot detail finds her crushing on affable neighborhood friend (Jeanne Disson) convinced Laure is a boy, “Tomboy” never turns into “Boys Don’t Cry” with tykes; instead, as with “Water Lillies,” Sciamma conveys a treatise on gender with intimate exchanges, creating the unlikely atmosphere of a warmer Catherine Breillat. Sciamma evades cerebral analysis in favor of gentler truths.
Beyond its specific themes, however, “Tomboy” mainly works as a paean to the final days of childhood innocence. Sciamma evokes Laura/Mikael’s subjectivity with smooth tracking shots, usually at her height, reminiscent of the Dardenne brothers. The technique realistically conveys her limited point of view in a world virtually devoid of adults, with the exception of her pregnant mother (Sophie Cattani), who never gets a name. The girl forms an alliance with her six-year-old sister (Malonn Lévana), whose incredulously mature support of Laura’s secret provides the movie with its weakest link.
No matter –“Tomboy” adheres to the internal logic of its lead better than the universe beyond her. Occasionally, that restricted perspective drifts close to fantasy; the physical dynamic of Laura/Mikael’s burgeoning romance with the girl next door, and the secret driving it, calls to mind the curious relationship in “Let the Right One In,” freed from the genre’s allegorical boundaries and reduced to the simplest ingredients of emerging desire. Sciamma never delves into the nature of the social taboo of Laura/Mikael’s behavior, but shows her commitment to it in a wholly innocent light. By doing that, “Tomboy” ceases to focus on the troubles of a certain age and concludes with the coming of a new one.
criticWIRE grade: A-
HOW WILL IT PLAY? Having landed awards at festivals ranging from Berlin to Frameline and Newfest, “Tomboy” opens in New York on Friday at Film Forum, where it should do strong business driven by strong word of mouth and critical acclaim.