Two feature films into her career, writer-director Céline Sciamma has proven unusually skilled at making short, plot-light movies about budding adolescents discovering themselves. Sciamma’s 2007 film Water Lilies is a lovely, delicate little story about teenage girls exploring their blossoming sexuality, and now Tomboy follows a 10-year-old girl who moves to a new town and is delighted to realize that she can pass as a boy among her new circle of friends. Zoé Héran plays the girl, who impulsively introduces herself as “Mikael” to her pretty new neighbor, Jeanne Disson. Héran and her peers are at an age where they’re starting to designate certain people as “popular,” and starting to preen in front of the opposite sex. The short-haired, sharp-featured Héran makes such a handsome boy that males and females alike are immediately drawn to her. Sure, she has to sneak off into the woods alone when all the guys on her soccer team go pee on the sidelines, but she’s a good goal-scorer, she knows how to spit, and she looks lean, fit, and flat with her shirt off.
At only 81 minutes long, Tomboy is too brief to develop much narrative momentum, and Sciamma puts a little too much emphasis on the nail-biting “How long before the hero is exposed as a heroine?” aspects of the story. (That outcome, by the way, is never in doubt.) But Sciamma brings an unforced naturalism to scenes of the kids just hanging out, asking goofily intimate questions about whether they’ve ever tasted their own urine—just the way kids act when there are no grown-ups around and they’re showing off for each other. And Sciamma sensitively explores the fluidity of identity in a sequence where Disson playfully puts makeup on Héran, and one where Héran makes a Play-Doh penis she can stuff into her swim trunks. It’s fun to see Héran enjoying the chance to be who she feels she really is. It’s so much fun that as Tomboy moves toward its conclusion, the inevitable end of Héran’s days as Mikael feels like watching someone die.