Quiet and naturalistic in the best way, the French film “Tomboy” rolls out a tale of malleable pre-adolescent identity with a marked absence of sensationalism.
With possibility in the air after her family moves to a suburban apartment enclave, 10-year-old Laure (Zoé Heran) — a gangly figure with pinched features and short, cowlick-y hair — passes herself off as “Mikael” to the local cluster of boisterous kids, one of whom is a girl (Jeanne Disson) who develops a crush on this strangely vulnerable-looking new boy.
As Laure adapts to her gambit — teaching herself to spit, going shirtless if necessary, working with, ahem, a clay model for swimming shorts’ sake, and eventually recruiting her 6-year-old sister (Malonn Lévana) in the deception — an undeniable tension mounts.
But filmmaker Céline Sciamma, following up her ethereal coming-of-age piece “Water Lilies,” keeps her atmospheric focus squarely on a richly observed, nonjudgmental summer tableau of children in frolic: amid the lively scenes of tag, soccer, truth-or-dare and king of the hill, there just happens to be a more questioning and privately liberating form of externalized pretending in these kids’ orbit.
Anchored by Heran’s bravely nuanced turn and the impish cuteness of Lévana — whose giddy joy at briefly inheriting a protective older brother is thoroughly charming — “Tomboy” stands out as an especially affecting delicacy about the thrills and pitfalls of exploring who one is.
“Tomboy.” No MPAA rating. In French with English subtitles. Running time: 1 hour, 21 minutes. At Laemmle’s Royal Theatre, West Los Angeles; Laemmle’s Playhouse 7, Pasadena; and Laemmle’s Town Center 5, Encino.