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In the age of pierced tongues, men’s nail polish, and casual Fridays, a boy wearing a frilly dress shouldn’t be such a big deal. But he is, as Ma Vie en Rose’s 7-year-old protagonist, Ludovic, proves by making his first appearance wearing his older sister’s frock. Ludovic’s shocking entrance occurs at the lawn party his parents have thrown to introduce themselves to their new neighbors in an upscale Brussels suburb, and it’s the first sign that not just Ludovic but his entire family will never be accepted in this bourgeois utopia.

Ludovic (the delicate Georges Du Fresne) is convinced that he’s a girl, or at least a “girl-boy.” His idol is Pam, a Barbielike doll who has her own TV show for little girls imagining marital bliss. He happily tells everyone that he’ll grow up to marry his classmate and neighbor Jerome (Julien Riviere), who inconveniently happens to be the son of Ludovic’s father’s uptight boss. Ludovic so wants to be a girl that he even emulates his older sister’s menstrual cramps.

This is a problem, but for whom? Although Ludovic acts out in dramatic ways, there’s only so much the script (by Chris vander Stappen and director Alain Berliner) can do with the kid. Mostly unaware of the taboos he challenges—and sexual identity isn’t the only one—Ludovic is a holy innocent in a crass, shallow, materialistic world. The real conflict comes when outsiders begin to punish Ludovic’s parents and siblings for the boy’s unconventional outlook. Ma Vie en Rose may intend to be daring, but its feel-good message of family solidarity seems pretty generic; there are moments here that are almost interchangeable with ones in two other precocious-kid movies recently shown in Washington: Secrets of the Heart, an arty Spanish movie screened in AFI’s “European Union Film Showcase,” and Home Alone 3.

The film’s message is acceptance, but that’s not really an issue. Ludovic’s grandmother (Helene Vincent) loves him unconditionally, and most of the time his parents (Michele Laroque and Jean-Philippe Ecoffey) do, too. (Hardly an absolutist, Mom remonstrates Ludovic that “boys don’t marry boys—or very rarely.”) Their relationship with their son only becomes strained under the pressure of disapproving employers, educators, and school psychologists, who label Ludovic “bent” and try to get him expelled from school. The film quickly shifts from intrafamily turmoil to dishing the neighbors.

It’s hardly an accident that Ludovic’s new neighborhood looks exactly like an American suburb and that his family ultimately takes refuge in an area that is both less affluent and more European (and a good place, it turns out, to meet a tomboy). Although Ludovic is a remarkable combination of sweetness and gravity, his suburban tormentors are mere caricatures: Jerome’s mother actually faints when she sees Ludovic prepare to kiss her son, and she tells Jerome that he’ll go to hell if he sits next to his cross-dressing pal at school.

First-time director Berliner shot Ma Vie en Rose in Pedro Almodóvar colors, and it almost seems that he shares Ludovic’s dream of escaping into Pam’s world. The film aspires to cotton-candy airiness yet feels as if it lingers far longer than its 88-minute running time. That’s because, after Ludovic’s initial introduction, there isn’t really any place to go—except to a funkier neighborhood. And girl-boys have long known that the first step toward happiness is to get out of the suburbs.CP