Céline Sciamma proves with new film Girlhood (2014) that she’s adept at crafting universally accessible coming-of-age stories. In this newest go-round, Sciamma trains her lens on the housing projects of an outlying Parisian neighbourhood. Here, the story revolves with notions of young women crafting their identities both publicly and privately. Despite the world of the film, Sciamma never falls into cultural clichés or stereotyping. She provides new avenues to experience depictions of turbulent teenage years. What results is a thoroughly absorbing drama that, much like the teenage experience, is felt very intensely in its highs as well as its lows.
Marieme (Karidja Touré) is a 16-year-old tomboy facing stalled academic prospects and a less-than-comforting home life. She crushes on her brother’s good friend Ismaël (Idrissa Diabaté) and plays American football with other girls her age. But there is the sense of unfulfillment, that Marieme has not quite found her niche. Cue the entrance of pretty girl gang Lady (Assa Sylla), Adiatou (Lindsay Karamoh) and Fily (Mariétou Touré). The girls talk fast and loud, gather glances from the local boys, play tough and stay strong as a clique. Marieme soon integrates with the girls and finds herself in a world completely new world, shaping herself and her female friendships faster than the blink of an eye in the modern world. It may be unbelievable to an extent that for the majority of the cast, this is their first film.
As newcomers to the screen, these young French actors grasp their respective roles so tightly it almost feels like a documentary at certain points. Their vulnerability and vivacity comes across most strongly in their language, where often the braggadocio flows unfettered. Each of these actors, especially Touré, live so openly in front of the lens that it is difficult not to identify with them, to warm to them so instantly because the feeling they’ve been kin all along is so strong here. Despite its setting within the Parisian housing projects and featuring an all black cast directed by an older white woman, there is no gender or racial pandering or bias present. Sciamma manages to carefully walk the hair-thin line between social realism and social tropes. She doesn’t shy away from some cultural truths (virginal purity, outer appearance as a critical feature, dominant male figures) within a racial context but she doesn’t present previously drawn notions.
Sciamma lets these young girls live and breathe in their own truth and discovery; she lets them revel in their girlhood. The film is broken into four movements, each presenting a different phase of Marieme’s evolution. Each act is full of some truly beautiful moments. At one point, the girls rent a hotel room, get dressed up, drink and blare Rihanna’s Diamonds and for three minutes they dance and since with abandon. Poignant moments amidst the rough ones (watching Marieme shrivel under her brother’s dominating hand is particularly heartbreaking) make Girlhood shine bright. In another moment, Lady christens Marieme with the nickname Vic (for “victory”). Watching Marieme find her own victory over her circumstances is a treat; don’t miss the chance to watch her do so.
Allie Gemmill | @alliegem