'Tomboy': French gender-bender coming-of-age story in 'Mockingbird' tradition

Now that the Thanksgiving and Christmas-Hanukkah seasons are behind us, the cross-dressing season is upon us and our movie screens. The big-budget Anglo-American entry -- "Albert Nobbs," with Glenn Close -- opens next week.

The subtler little French one is "Tomboy," opening Friday. Its titular heroine is 10-year-old Laure (Zoe Heran), whose family has just moved to a new home and life in the suburbs. How to fit in and find new friends there during the summer break before school starts?

This is the chance, or compulsory obligation, for a "new kid" to invent -- rather than reinvent -- herself for really the first time. When she meets the slightly older, more developed Lisa (Jeanne Disson) -- doyenne of a prepubescent boys' gang -- Laure's short-cropped (mini-Jean Seberg) hair, wiry frame, soccer skills and introverted personality let her pass for a male named Mikael.

"You're not like the others," says Lisa, more presciently than she knows. The other 10-year-old boys spit constantly, peel off their shirts at will, and pee jointly outdoors. Laure/Mikael evinces no need to prove either femininity or masculinity: She can wrestle with the best of the boys and play patiently with her bubbly little girly-girl sister Jeanne (Malonn Levana) -- a loving co-conspirator in the elder's identity crisis.

The main difference between "Tomboy" and other sexually confused kids' stories (such as "Billy Elliot") is that there's no problem at home. Laure's parents and her relationships with them are wonderful. Gentle dad (played by Mathieu Demy, son of Jacques Demy and Agnes Varda) is loving and demonstrative from the start, while pregnant mom (Sophie Cattani) tries equally hard to be understanding.

Laure's challenges come from outside, not inside. Though she handles them -- the Truth-or-Dare games, the chewing of each other's gum, the tentative kisses, the too-revealing swimsuit scenes -- with aplomb, it's only a matter of time before her ruse is discovered. What happens then?

One can't say enough about the beautiful performance of pale, androgynous Zoe Heran -- who looks like an embryonic Sting -- with her freckles and soulful strength and vulnerability, examining her skinny little body in the mirror, full of melancholy but not self-pity. Once, and only once toward the end, we see her tear-stained cheeks; we never see her actually crying. Director-writer Celine Scriamma chooses to spare her that and to let her keep her dignity, largely in silence. It's an excellent choice.

So is her presentation of the action, and the subject, with no hint of mockery or burlesque. Instead, she captures the dynamics in semi-documentary scenes, beautifully photographed by Crystel Fournier, with one -- and only one -- terrific music-and-dance sequence between Lisa and Mikael. Sensual, not sexual. Ms. Scriamma cast real-life friends of Zoe Heran as the gang boys. She wrote the script in three weeks and shot the film in 20 days.

The result is a deeper, more heartfelt kind of pre-pubescent "Boys Don't Cry" or "Stand by Me" -- a coming-of-age, summer-of-awakening film in the "To Kill a Mockingbird" tradition: Remember Mary Badham's immortal Scout in the 1962 film -- now celebrating its 50th anniversary? As gender identity goes, then and now, identity is more important than gender.

This unpretentious "Tomboy" is apolitical and nonjudgmental. The wider social issues/implications are not explored. They don't really need to be. The day we and society re-focus on sexuality -- as opposed to homosexuality or heterosexuality -- is the day we and society will be better off.

(In French with English subtitles.)

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