Okay, I’ll freely admit that are numerous films, way too many in fact, about kids growing up on the wrong side of the tracks, getting mixed up with a rough crowd, and eventually “finding themselves.” But there aren’t many as understated as Girlhood. This is the third feature by French director/writer Céline Sciamma–you know, she’s the one responsible for bringing us 2011’s character-driven, Berlin festival favorite, Tomboy. Sciamma’s films are directed with a tender hand, and what makes them all the more special for me is that, despite their socially heavy subject matter, they never collapse into melodrama.
Girlhood follows baby-faced Marieme (Karidja Touré), an African-French teenager living in a poor suburb in Paris. Her mom’s work schedule means she’s almost never home, so her older brother “takes care” of her and her two sisters. By “takes care,” I mean, he runs an abusive household where the sisters are frequently slapped around and spoken to with gross disrespect. An early scene in the film sees Marieme telling her mother that she wants to go to high school, and her mother delivering the empty response, “that’s good, honey,” with no follow-up questions or expression of any real interest. In that scene, we’re behind Marieme for most of the time, which is not the obvious choice but it works so effectively with the few words that are spoken. We not only get a glimpse into Marieme’s frustration, but a view into her space.
Marieme is so young, yet she’s already being spectacularly failed by the adults around her. It’s no wonder her grades aren’t up to standard, because she isn’t receiving any intellectual stimulation or encouragement at home. When she admits to her school that she “just wants to be normal,” she’s hit with the harshest response possible: “it’s a bit too late for that.” It’s also no wonder that Marieme rebels against her situation, by joining…
…a leather-wearing, tough-as-hell girl-gang who can intimidate simply by existing, led by a girl known simply as “Lady.” Yep, this is what sweet Marieme is driven to do, and she quickly changes the way she dresses to fit in with this group. The allure of the gang is obvious, both to Marieme, and to us: they steal to get what they want, and they spontaneously lip-sync and shake their booties to “Diamonds” by Rhianna. Oh, then there’s Lady, who gives Marieme a gold necklace that says, “Vic,” and instructs her that Vic stands for “Victory”–that’s her name from now on. You guessed it: as Vic, Marieme is able to let loose and be more assertive, clearly less concerned with consequences as she even teases a relationship with Ismael, one of her brother’s friends. Vic’s scenes with Ismael are all standouts in the film, as he starts off being the only male figure she can trust.
When Vic wins a physical fight and is congratulated by Lady and her brother, she’s encouraged to continue down the wrong path. What it really comes down to, though, is that her alter-ego is the worst friend she’s ever had, brainwashing her into making terrible decisions. Things spiral out of control as she leaves home and begins working for a local drug dealer, where she wears a wig and changes her feminine appearance in an attempt not to be sexualized. In the most perfect and characteristically subtle way, Marieme (not Vic) holds her own by the end of the film. And while no one congratulates her, you as an audience member will–because damn, this was all worth something, and it wasn’t over-emphasized, as is so common with the films we watch every day. Girlhood respects its audience and, ever so politely, demands your participation.
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