Laure (Zoé Héran) is going through a lot: Her dad got a new job, so her family had to move—again. Her mom is about give birth to her baby brother. And all of her new friends think she’s a boy.
Granted, the skinny 10-year-old with a pixie haircut introduces herself as “Mikael,” so they can be forgiven their mistake, but as Laure hangs with the boys and their ringleader Lisa (Jeanne Disson), a girl gawkily growing into maturity (putting Laure’s own coming of age in sharp relief), she discovers both how easy and how difficult it will be to continue her ruse. Gradually, she slips into the role, practicing spitting and stripping off her T for a soccer match of shirts vs. skins. A day swimming at the lake poses more of a challenge, but she demonstrates remarkable ingenuity in overcoming this obstacle.
French writer-director Céline Sciamma, whose first film Water Lilies explored the blossoming sexuality of three adolescent girls, keeps Laure’s gender ambiguous at first. It’s not until a cute bath scene with her little sister Jeanne (Malonn Lévana) that her sex is revealed—an effect spoiled by any advance discussion of the film and its very title. This is a minor disappointment, though, as the scene also firmly puts the audience in her camp. Only we know her secret.
And it’s agonizing, for Sciamma has crafted a film that’s tonally sweet and innocent and idyllic. Laure’s parents seem unconcerned that she prefers tank tops and tennis shoes to tutus and pointe shoes, in which her decidedly girly sister flounces around, while Laure and Lisa explore a friendship that’s budding into first love. But Laure’s is a lie that can’t be sustained. School is starting soon, and “Mikael” isn’t on the class roster. The awful inevitability that she could be found out at any moment—by her parents, by her friends—renders Tomboy an excruciating viewing experience.
Six-year-old Jeanne is the first to know, and in that moment Lévana conveys an immediate understanding not only of what Laure has been up to but the larger implications of such a deception that demonstrates the profundity of the character and the child actor. Their relationship is sweet and supportive, playful and loving, as is Laure’s relationship with her parents—unexpected and refreshing in a film about gender confusion. Such a portrayal gives one hope that Laure will be okay in the end, but it doesn’t alleviate our acute discomfort until then.