girlhood review

Céline Sciamma has a penchant for capturing the reality of youth on screen. Starting with the short film Pauline before her debut Water Lilies and the critically acclaimed Tomboy, Sciamma returns with Girlhood, the story of a Parisian teen desperate to see her path in life.

The film’s actresses were street scouted and it is the rawness of their attitude that fills Girlhood with extra bite. Karidja Touré, in particular,  as lead character Marieme, rings both an innocence and strength to a role too genuine to be faked. As the softness of Marieme gives way to her alias ‘Vic’, the audience begins to understand the enticement of a girl gang and why Marieme would forgo school and family for what it offers her.

The nuances of Girlhood are shades of a lavender hue. Marieme laughs and dances with her new friends like lavender bush in a soft breeze, distracted for mere moments from the reality of her existence, her yearning for the distraction as pungent as the lavender bud. Expectations not met are a cornerstone of the female experience, and at no time do such experiences feel more life-threatening, more palpably disappointing, than in one’s girlhood.


What is translatable universally during girlhood are threats and power. Marieme does not have the average teen-girl issues. She has all of them, with a backdrop of project housing and only summer work as a cleaner lined up. Somewhere outside the bubble of her world is a place where Marieme imagines that what she wants can come immediately; she only need force things along when needed. In these moments, when the darkness of ‘Vic’ emerges from Marieme, grabbing a potential employer by the wrist, the fragility of her character is almost too much to bear. Yet, as the audience, we have been made privy to the lack of role models to guide Marieme.

Rivalled only by the main characters in Harmony Korine’s Spring Breakers singing along to Britney Spears half-naked in a parking lot, is the hotel room scene in Girlhood, where the girl gang perfectly lip-synch to Rihanna’s “Diamonds”. Life for young girls is rarely presented as so beautiful yet fraught with danger than in these two films. Wearing their stolen dresses, the concept of being ‘diamonds in the sky’ speaks to the girls in a way that is barely translatable to an older audience, but in this scene, we feel it.

Incidents aside, the force that drives Girlhood‘s narrative is quintessentially French, as the characters exude the kind of rebellion and unapologetic anger noticeable in much of French cinema. It is a needed antidote to the sentimental narratives of current indie cinema, which of late tends to rely on quirky visuals and over-scripted dialogue. The moods of indie cinema focused on youth tend to be the same, though Sciamma does a service to young people by not making films about painfully self-aware teens. Many filmmakers could benefit from her objective eye.

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