At first glance, there's nothing unusual about Michaël, the central character in Céline Sciamma's second feature. He wears the same baggy t-shirts and shorts that most ten year-old boys prefer, he wears his hair cropped short, he's protective of his younger sister and he loves playing football. Michaël is the new kid in town, with his family having moved into this small suburb during the summer, but he quickly becomes a popular figure among the local children, particularly his pretty neighbour Lisa (Jeanne Disson). There is something unusual about Michaël, however – his name isn't Michaël, and he's not even a boy. Laure (Zoé Héran) is actually a ten year-old girl whose naturally boyish demeanour hides any hint of femininity. Her deception is sparked by an innocent misunderstanding – when Lisa first introduces herself and understandably mistakes her new neighbour for a boy – but Laure takes this error and runs with it, and as summer progresses she seems to grow ever more comfortable in the character she has assumed.
We initially watch Tomboy from a position of curiosity, wondering how long Laure can maintain this extraordinary façade. We know that her secret will ultimately be revealed – after all, she will have to enrol in her new school at the end of the summer, where her true identity will be exposed – but Laure is too busy revelling in the joys of being a young boy among friends to worry about such consequences. Sciamma's first film Water Lilies was a hugely impressive debut, beautifully composed and tactful in its handling of sensitive topics, but Tomboy struck me as a much more acute and emotionally involving film. She directs with a remarkable delicacy of touch, allowing scenes of entirely natural behaviour to play out on screen and immersing us in Laure's two worlds – the family home, a warm and loving environment, and the woods where Michaël and his pals play. The director offers no explanation for Laure's behaviour; she is more interested in observing how this young girl adapts to new situations and how the group dynamics among her friends evolve around her.
So Sciamma is hugely fortunate to have discovered such eminently watchable young actress to carry her film. Zoé Héran is so utterly convincing in the challenging lead role that it's impossible to imagine any child being a better fit for the part. This is a performance of stunning subtlety and dexterity, and it's fascinating to watch Héran as she methodically negotiates the various tricky situations she finds herself in; examining her body to confirm that her undeveloped breasts won't give her away, or fashioning penis from modelling clay to ensure her trunks will be appropriately shaped when she goes swimming, trying to find a secluded spot among the trees to urinate while the other boys relieve themselves in the open. Sciamma obviously has a wonderful facility to draw entirely believable and spontaneous performance from children and the magic she works with Malonn Lévana, as Laure's 6 year-old sister Jeanne, is just as crucial to the film's success. The scenes between these two are an unalloyed joy, and one of the finest depictions of a sibling relationship that I've seen in years, with Jeanne being especially delightful to watch when she becomes a co-conspirator in Laure's lie and enjoys spending time both with her big sister and with new friend Michaël.
Tomboy is a small film – running for little more than 80 minutes – but few pictures this year have felt more perfectly formed. In terms of scale, the film couldn't be further removed from Terrence Malick's epic The Tree of Life, but what the two pictures share is an uncanny ability to view the world through the eyes of their young protagonists and to express both the bliss and pain that encapsulates childhood experience. Tomboy's approach is softer and quieter, however – it's a film that sneaks up on you, and you have no idea how deeply involved you are in the drama until you feel it. Sciamma and Héran make us care about the central character's happiness in a way that precious few films manage to do, and whether you call her Laure or call him Michaël, you'll be left in no doubt as the credits roll that you've spent time with a very special young person.
Read my interview with Céline Sciamma here