In "Tomboy," Laure (Zoé Héran), a 10-year-old French girl, moves with her parents and 6-year-old sister to a Parisian suburb and proceeds to pass herself off as a boy with her newfound friends. Because of her close-cropped hair and rangy physicality, this proves surprisingly easy to do. But why does she do it?
Writer-director Céline Sciamma, whose debut feature, "Water Lilies," also dealt with the passages of girlhood, albeit at a somewhat older age, doesn't probe for answers. It is taken as a given that Laure, who is known to her friends as "Mikael," is undoubtedly going through some sort of gender confusion. What's confusing for us is that her loving parents (Sophie Cattani, Mathieu Demy) seem entirely unaware of what's going on. (Her mother is preoccupied with her pregnancy, but that's not exactly an excuse.)
Only little sister Jeanne (Malonn Lévana) is in on it. (There are intimations that she has seen this all before in the old neighborhood.) Sciamma is nonjudgmental about Laure's behavior, even about her deceptions with a neighborhood girl, Lisa (Jeanne Disson), who is sweet on "Mikael." What we all know, of course, is that the charade can't last.
Once summer ends and the kids enroll in school, the jig will be up.
The film ends with that eventuality. It would have been richer if it had opened with it. Since Sciamma doesn't provide much in the way of psychological underpinnings for Laure, or anybody else, long stretches of the film play out like a warm and fuzzy docudrama about coming-of-age waywardness.
There are nevertheless some marvelous moments between Laure and Jeanne in the bathtub, or making clay figures, that capture the easygoingness of sisterly love, and there's also a terrific scene of the neighborhood kids playing truth-or-dare and trying to gross each other out. These incidental pleasures, for want of stronger stuff, become primary pleasures in "Tomboy." Grade: B- (Unrated)