This review was originally published on Scannain.com
The teenage protagonists of Girlhood are full of energy, have plenty to say and are constantly forced to lash out against the complacency surrounding them. The same can be said of Céline Sciamma’s film, a supremely confident take on well-covered ground. But where Boyhood gave us brief glimpses into an ever-evolving life, Girlhood puts us at the heart of teenage turmoil, exacerbated by social divides and vicious circles. Linklater aimed for art; Sciamma aims for truth.
Putting the ‘girl’ in Girlhood is Marieme (Karidja Touré), a young inhabitant of one of Paris’ less well-off banlieues. Marieme is a shy wallflower, hemmed in by a life of few prospects and a domineering brother (Cyril Mendy). It must be noted that Sciamma’s film is not particularly interested in the social issues that surround Marieme. It shows the tough, deprived neighbourhood she inhabits and the realities of life therein, but this is not a message movie. That said, its setting and focus on a young black woman seeking her place in a less-than-welcoming world sets its apart from most other coming-of-age teen movies. Marieme is confronted by less-than-peachy reality constantly. Her little-seen mother works a menial job as a hotel cleaner, and the school programmes she embarks on offer her little prospects beyond a similar career path. Sciamma offers a new view on what are constant struggles for many people. A film doesn’t need the grit of La Haine to show that la vie in the outskirts of Paris is far from en rose. It’s a necessary acknowledgement of reality in the most romanticised city in the world; Amélie Poulain lives on another planet.
The dispiriting realities of her daily life drive Marieme to a group of classmates more outgoing than she. Lady (Assa Sylla), Fily (Marietou Touré) and Adiatou (Lindsay Karamou) seem to be possessed of a confidence Marieme can only hope for. They accept her into the group, and thus begins a transition. With newly-straightened hair, leather jacket and burgeoning attitude, the quiet, reserved Marieme becomes the newly-monikered ‘Vic’. She and her new-found group hassle other groups of girls, loiter, shoplift and share girlish laughs. Most importantly they watch out for each other. Sciamma frames a potentially-clichéd set of relationships within a social framework that makes their friendship necessary. Vic has little reason to speak or smile before meeting this group, and for all their underhand behaviour, they bring out the best in Vic. All concerned deliver fine performances, but Touré is a revelation in the lead role. Her Marieme keeps her head down and demeanour hesitant until the group are together, when their free-spiritedness finally allows her to display a radiant smile. One of the most joyous scenes in any film this year sees our central quartet dance and mime to RIhanna’s ‘Diamonds’. It’s just them in a hotel, dressed to the (stolen) nines and away from the milieu that made them the tough cookies they are. Their joy escalates to the point that miming turns to full-blown singing, without a care who hears. Their attitudes suggest malice aforethought, but their laughter speaks of simple joys; camaraderie, dependence, fraternity. They’re teenagers acting their age, and their portrayal here is crucially sympathetic. Too many films forget that being a teenager is fraught with emotions and peril; its characters may sometimes be shrill, but Girlhood never is.
Sciamma’s refusal to make Girlhood an issue film allows the universal truths of friendship and womanhood to shine through. As with her previous efforts, Water Lilies and Tomboy, Sciamma presents determined young minds trying to overcome the expectations laid down for them. . As time goes on, Sciamma’s confidence in the characters slips a little, and some Loach-ian realist tendencies begin to bleed in as Vic’s story outgrows the group. By the time this happens, however, the character of Marieme/Vic has been etched in the mind. Girlhood is a character piece first and foremost, and not the overarching portrait of time suggested by the title (The original French title, Bande de Filles (Gang of Girls), is at least a little closer to the immediate narrative). Still, that doesn’t mean it’s not a film about relatable experiences. Despite the harsh environs, the immediate concerns of female companionship and empowerment shine through, much like Marieme’s smile. Out of a concrete jungle grows a flower determined to bloom.