“You’ve got clit, I like that.” It’s an unusual expression, but it’s enough to convince Dounia (the sensational Oulaya Amamra) — a Muslim teenager living in a low-income housing project outside of Paris — to drop out of vocational school and commit herself to a life of crime. After all, it’s probably better than any compliment she’s ever received before, and all the more meaningful coming from Rebecca (Jisca Kalvanda), the baddest drug dealer in the banlieue. In a film that flips gender conventions on their ass, a film where the girls are tough and the guys are eye candy, balls would only get in the way.
But this is no simple story of girl power. In fact, it’s arguably less concerned with feminism than it is with the financial realities that impede it from taking root. A vital and volatile debut that has ultimately has way more energy than it knows what to do with, Houda Benyamina’s “Divines” tells a scrappy coming-of-age story about a place where women are encouraged to follow their individual dreams so long as they don’t have a chance of escaping their collective nightmare. It tells a story about two friends who are stuck in a poverty trap and raging for freedom, tempests in a teapot that only lets in the tiniest sliver of light.
Feral in the way that only teenagers in French films seem to be, Dounia refuses to be a victim of her circumstances. YouTube videos give her a clear view through the glass ceiling that stretches over her world, and she’s determined to scratch through to the other side even if she has to bloody her hands in the process (as in Céline Sciamma’s “Girlhood,” “Divines” illustrates how powerfully the internet can agitate the ambitions of disenfranchised kids).
Dounia — even more so than her bigger, blacker, more religious best friend, Maimouna (Déborah Lukumuena, captivatingly natural) — is furious at how transparently the system is designed to prevent upward mobility. Sick of being taught the least disruptive way for a poor daughter to become a poor mother, she flips her lid when a teacher tries to give the class some career-planning advice. “What the fuck have you achieved?” she snaps at the only adult in the room, her words making just a little too much sense for things to ever go back to normal. Why play by the rules when the rules are rigged against you?
It isn’t long before Dounia is dragging Maimouna to Rebecca’s front door, the BFFs signing up for some low-level, high-risk drug-dealing. “Money money money!” they sing to each other. When Rebecca gives Dounia an iPhone 6 Plus, she might as well be wrapping her arounds around an oversized genie’s lamp.
“Divines” is at its best when it’s watching these characters follow their bliss. Benyamina completely gets these girls, and completely gets how natural it is for them to fluidly negotiate between several different identities — in one telling scene, Douina and Maimouna put on their headscarves only to smuggle stolen goods out of a supermarket, playing up one part of their lives in order to indulge in another. But when they retire to the rafters of a dance studio and Douina (literally) drools over a half-naked hunk on the floor below, it’s clear that the girls aren’t trying to fool anyone so much as they’re just trying to figure out who they are. They’re lost at sea on the same boat, and their bond is so easy to buy because of that.
Later, the film (literally) becomes a dance between empowerment and dispossession, as Douina’s mysterious white Baryshnikov leads her in an improvised tango that unlooses all of her tension. It’s an awesomely pure moment, as raw and evocative as the scene where Rebecca sends the girls to seduce a rival dealer and Douina steps into a nightclub like the disco ball is spinning just for her. Benyamina allows her film to look how her characters feel, the shoddy disrepair of the projects giving way to occasional moments of ecstasy. The “Girlhood” comparison all but makes itself during these more outwardly stylized scenes, but the two films shouldn’t be stacked against each other — they’re complementary, they corroborate each other, they each make the other feel more true.
It’s when “Divines” drifts closer towards “Goodfellas” that it goes off the rails, Benyamina running into trouble along with her heroines. For a while, the film has enough verve to convince you that it’s not going to fall for all of the traps its first-time director sets for herself, but she doesn’t yet fully trust in the originality of her own voice. Real life inevitably catches up with Douina and Maimouna, but it comes for them in unbelievable ways — when the girls start to see themselves as gangsters, the movie reduces them to clichés, subjecting them both to formulaic twists that don’t feel true to who they were when the story started, or who they wanted to be by the time it was over.
It’s as though someone told Benyamina that just creating these wonderful characters wasn’t sufficient, she also had to forge both of their fates. “When you’re God, it’s your responsibility to watch over the children,” Maimouna tells Dounia on one unusually contemplative evening. “But he hasn’t acknowledged us,” her friend replies. But “Divines” does, and that alone would have been enough.
“Divines” premieres on Netflix on Friday, November 18.