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For Your Consideration: 'Tomboy'

French director Céline Sciamma has won some awards, at the Berlin Film Festival and elsewhere, for her second film, Tomboy. Like her debut picture, Naissance des Pieuvres (Water Lilies, 2007), it takes up the question of the awakening of sexual identity. The film opens with a 10-year-old who is moving to a new home, outside of Paris, because the mother is expecting a new baby. Sciamma moves us quickly into a happy but somewhat ambiguous world, following the child's first meeting with the neighborhood kids, where he introduces himself as Mikaël. He is taken in by Lisa (Jeanne Disson), who takes a shine to him. Only after these scenes, so typical of a childhood anywhere, do we learn that the skinny, short-haired boy is called Laure at home.

The juxtaposition of realities is even more striking in French, because the kids refer to Laure with masculine adjectives, because they think she is a boy, while the family uses feminine ones. Laure keeps things impersonal and does not commit to one or the other for the most part, and one has the sense of how a gender-specific language, as much as the childhood rituals of playing sports, swimming, taking a pee outdoors, do define a person's identity. Linguistic slipperiness abounds, as even the expression in French for "my name is" -- je m'appelle, or I call myself -- speaks to the ambiguity of the situation.

In a recent interview, Sciamma spoke about her own upbringing, in the suburb of Cergy-Pontoise, in the Val-d'Oise (95). "So, these are spaces that I love to shoot. They are filled with contrasts, and I love especially the border between concrete and nature." Indeed, Laure longs for the freedom of her rough-and-tumble life as a boy, which takes place in the wooded green spaces around the apartment building. It is probably no mistake that, in one of many charming interactions between Laure and her girly younger sister, Jeanne (played adorably by Malonn Lévana), Laure reads from Kipling's Jungle Book: Mowgli, the strange feral child raised by animals to learn the Law of the Jungle, is a story that has particular meaning. Taking a huge risk on an unknown child actor, Sciamma has directed her Laure, newcomer Zoé Héran, in a guileless, winning performance that is nothing short of astounding.

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The French expression for the word used in the film's title is garçon manqué, and its literal meaning -- a failed, or frustrated, boy -- resonates with the crisis Laure faces as the ruse is uncovered, although the term, to my knowledge, is not used by any of the characters in the film. The screenplay, also by Sciamma, does not wallow in its emotions, but it is profoundly moving. This is a sweet portrait of a loving family, with the tender father of Mathieu Demy, the son of filmmakers Agnès Varda and Jacques Demy, balancing out the more disturbed and angry reaction of the mother, Sophie Cattani. Cinematographer Crystel Fournier captures the sun and shadows of this idyllic childhood with exceptional beauty, creating visual music in a rather stark and silent movie, with essentially no soundtrack, except for one vivid dance scene of rambunctious abandon between Lisa and Laure.

This film opens today at Landmark's E Street Cinema.

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