Like her first two feature films, Céline Sciamma’s third, “Girlhood,” continues with the
themes of gender, sexual identity and self-determination. In this instance, however,
she moves beyond suburbia and explores the lives of black girls living in the banlieus
(Parisian suburbs which, ironically, are a French inversion of what those of us who live in
the UK and US consider to be suburbs).
In a country in which black women are pretty much invisible or, if seen at all, are viewed
either in the context of socially problematic demographic at the bottom of the totem
pole, Marieme (aka Vic), played entrancingly by Karidja Touré, is a quietly observant,
plucky, 16 year old black girl. Despite not actually having any apparent strategic course
for herself, Marieme is determined not to settle for the roles that society so casually puts
forth for her. With a seemingly absent father, and a mother who always seems to be
at work (as an office cleaner), Marieme and her two younger sisters live predominantly
under the iron-fisted rule of their big brother, an oppressive tyrant who holds sway in
the neighbourhood and who isn’t averse to using brute force to keep Marieme in check.
But it’s summer and, with the dire and undesired prospect of not making it into high
school (leaving only vocational options open for her future), and with the chance to
better get the attention of one of her brother’s friends, Marieme is lured into the fold of
a group of girls looking for a replacement fourth member for their gang (the previous
fourth having left due to pregnancy). Together, Marieme, Lady (Assa Sylla), Adiatou
(Lindsay Karamoh), and Fily (Mariétou Touré), navigate their exuberant adolescence
through a somewhat antagonistic, gang-lite terrain of face-saving bravado and ego,
taking detours via girlish pursuits such as clothes, music and dancing.
The film’s strength lies in its naturalistic depiction of young female friendship. In the
most affectively poignant scene, Rhianna’s hit song, Diamonds, is used to uplifting
effect. Dressed in stolen dresses and high on life and cheap booze, the girls are
paradoxically seen at their most innocent, liberated and celebratory – luxuriating in their
love of self and each other, and affirming their value, despite what others may think of
them. Loyal, protective, comforting, vengeful, if need be, as well as being humorously
petty and competitive in the most trivial of pursuits (like crazy golf), the girls are
cliquish clones of each other and yet their nuanced, complementary individuality is not
With only minor subtext with regard to race, the overriding issue that runs through the
film is the value and perception of young women, particular in this strata of society.
In an early scene, following an all-female football match, girls from both teams walk
home through their neighbourhood as a united, rowdy crowd, only quietening down as
they approach their estates where boys and young men sit or stand ominously watching
them. There’s a silent bonding that’s evident as their number slowly thins out when they
bid goodbye as a small group breaks away from the whole to make their respective ways
While beating up and humiliating another girl is guaranteed to garner respect, taking
ownership of one’s sexuality, is viewed in only one way, and the possible slut-shaming is
enough to warrant the necessity to leave home – the only other acceptable option being
marriage, a path that Marieme sees as a dead end, even if it’s to a young man who
seemingly cares and respects her.
It’s difficult not to like the film, mainly thanks to its four young female lead characters.
The natural, documentary-like nature of the film (tonally rather than cinematically)
means you get to get to hang out with the girls and see them at their best, worst, and
most vulnerable, without the reliance on a clichéd narrative and contrived exposition.
However, I found it frustrating that, while Sciamma does an excellent job of portraying
the ups and downs of their lives without it feeling voyeuristic or exploitative, not a single
positive choice is put forward for these girls.
We’re presented with a closed, claustrophic sub-culture with little or no air vents or
portals for escape. When we do see anyone venture beyond the banlieus, it’s to serve
a utilitarian purpose for wider society (cleaner or drug peddler, for example), or to be
viewed with suspicion, if noticed at all. On the odd occasion, the girls do take to using
their ill-gotten gains to soak up the more luxurious comforts and leisure that wider
society has to offer, in the form of crazy golf, and mid-budget hotel rooms in which
they can play dress up. Beyond that, however, the ups and downs of their lives are
pretty much brought on by the girls themselves, and sinking deeper into darker, more
nefarious sub-culture that lurks ominously, seems to be the only alternatives open to
While Marieme’s self-determination is obviously an admirable trait, and one which
she definitely strives for, watching her make her choices, from vengeful, aggrandising
violence, to feeling the need to compromise her femininity in order to protect
herself as the film progresses, it’s hard not to still see a bright (though academically
unenthusiastic) child with nowhere to turn for help in order to fulfil a potential that is
never acknowledged or encouraged, and therefore unlikely to ever be realised.
The film ends with a rather emotionally and tonally downbeat yet open-ended resolution
(or lack thereof) from which I decided to choose to take as hope, despite the dismal lack
of precedent in the film. Given her resolve and demonstrable ability to make her own
decisions and survive her lifestyle choices, I like to think that there’s a glimmer of hope
that Marieme might miraculously find a way to shine like a diamond in the rough, even
as she evades getting crushed by the pressures of life as a young woman in a male
dominated sub-culture, and a wider society that also has little to offer her without