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London Film Festival Review: ‘Girlhood’s’ Strength Lies in Its Naturalistic Depiction of Young Female Friendship

London Film Festival Review: 'Girlhood's' Strength Lies in Its Naturalistic Depiction of Young Female Friendship

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

compromised.

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

home.

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

them.

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

compromise.

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