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Review: Charm of Céline Sciamma’s “Tomboy” lies in provocative understatement

Jeanne has the best big brother a six-year-old could hope for. The only problem is that Michael (Zoé Héran) is actually Laure: a sporty, short-haired 10-year-old girl who uses the excuse of summer in a new town among new kids to unleash — and name — her inner tomboy.

A lovely and unforced French film, “Tomboy” introduces us to Laure as she moves into a new apartment with kid sister Jeanne (Malonn Lévana), their very pregnant mother (Sophie Cattani) and sweet, shaggy-haired father (Mathieu Demy, French film royalty, being the son of directors Jacques Demy and Agnès Varda).

When she meets her neighbor, Lisa (Jeanne Disson), Laure impulsively gives her name as Michael. And the deed is done. With her shorn hair, scrawny chest and flailing limbs, she resembles a boy just as much as the gang that soon adopts her as one of its own. In short, Michael becomes the new cool kid of the neighborhood. And in the headiness of such popularity, he/she forgets that the summer days are quickly aiming toward September and the first day of school in a fourth-grade classroom, where there is no “Michael” listed on the roster, but there is a Laure.

Wisely, “Tomboy” doesn’t try to “explain” Laure’s need to be Michael, and there really is no explanation in any sort of easy psychological terms. Her gender identity just happens to have a y-chromosome attached. Sexuality doesn’t come into it at age 10, and the movie doesn’t pretend to know whether this Summer of Michael is just a phase or the signal turning point of Laure’s ongoing development.

The movie recognizes that kids can be more savage than their parents, who try to idealize them as angels and little princes. So, yes, all the way through you may feel the building unease of the unsparing punishment that might befall Laure/Michael for upsetting the status quo. (A scene in which she goes swimming with the gang, wearing a skintight bathing suit and a strategically placed bit of Play-Doh, creates the kind of low-boil suspense Hitchcock might have admired.)

But “Tomboy” isn’t interested in easy pyrotechnics or lectures. It feels almost documentary in its approach to the rules and rituals of pre-adolescence. (Warning: its gentle, minimal-dialogue approach may seem too slow and tooundidactic for some viewers.) Writer-director Céline Sciamma gets joyous, naturalistic performances from the children, as if she took the time to become a sort of embed in their culture.

A solemn presence with a striking face, no matter what gender she’s embodying, young Héran carries the movie with gangly grace. And she develops a great rapport with the even younger Lévana, who captures the perfect logic of a child dealing with an older sibling: I won’t give your secret away, so long as I get to come along for the fun.

“Tomboy.” With Zoé Héran, Jeanne Disson, Malonn Lévana. Written and directed by Céline Sciamma. In French with subtitles. 82 minutes. Unrated. At Landmark Midtown Art.