2014, NR, 113 min. Directed by Céline Sciamma. Starring Karidja Touré, Assa Sylla, Lindsay Karamoh, Mariétou Touré, Idrissa Diabaté, Simina Soumaré, Cyril Mendy, Djibril Gueye.
REVIEWED By Marjorie Baumgarten, Fri., April 10, 2015
The adolescents in Girlhood’s working-class suburbs of Paris face all the usual slings and arrows thrust at emergent yet tentative identities, yet they also contend with being young women of color who face dead-end futures and few chances to escape the patriarchal strictures of their inherited culture. As with her previous film Tomboy, writer/director Sciamma demonstrates an acute sensitivity to the complications of growing up female. Titled Girlhood for its American release in an obvious ploy to be viewed as a counterpart to last year’s widely hailed Boyhood, this film is better described by its original French title Bande de Filles, which translates as Girl Gang.
Marieme (Karidja Touré) is the eldest daughter in a family headed by a single mother and physically abusive older brother. They live in a cramped apartment in the projects outside Paris. Marieme’s school grades aren’t good enough to place her on a college track, but she resists the prospect of vocational training. When she notices that a boy she has a crush on is friendly with a gang of three girls whom she had previously rejected, she about-faces and throws in with the group. In short order, her cornrows come undone and she starts straightening her hair and bullying other girls for their lunch money. Although gang life comes with its physical skirmishes, it also offers camaraderie, support, and a christening of sorts with her new name, Vic.
The nonprofessional actresses at the heart of the story exude a compelling naturalism, while dancing together to Rihanna’s “Diamonds,” their joy is captivating. Girlhood grows a bit fuzzy in its latter half as Marieme/Vic dons a skirt and blond wig and starts working as a drug courier. In fact, the film is never sharper than in its opening sequences. The initial images show girls playing American-style football, then walking home gleefully in a group. Their joviality grows quieter as the sounds of men idling in the streets grows louder, and their group numbers are steadily diminished as girls peel off toward their houses. It’s during moments such as these, which show women silencing themselves in conformity to or self-protection against the world of men, that Sciamma’s unique talents as a director soar.