French director Céline Sciamma's first two features, "Water Lilies" and "Tomboy," followed young women through challenging periods of social confusion and identity crises. Her latest and best work, "Girlhood," follows that same pattern by taking it one step further. While Sciamma's previous movies found characters overcoming their burdens through perseverance, "Girlhood" gives them the chance to really act out. The tense, involving result confirms Sciamma's mastery over the coming-of-age drama, a genre too often reduced to its simplest ingredients.
Sciamma's latest stage of development arrives alongside a major discovery. Heading up an all-black cast, Karidja Touré plays subdued teen Marieme, a low key girl who lives in a lower class Paris neighborhood with her warring parents and younger sister. The opportunity arrives for her to come out of her shell when a trio of local teens coax her into their gang, luring her with the promise of cute boys. Before long, Marieme has joined forces with the motley crew as they cruise shopping malls and threaten rival gangs on a freewheeling rein of terror, while Sciamma lets her actors do the dirty work. Touré's transformation from a subdued, frustrated child of neglect to a young woman in control of her life provides the movie with a robust backbone as she grows increasingly rebellious and assertive.
Without the intrusion of chapter headings, Sciamma marks each new transition in her behavior with a telling fade to black, tracking her emerging consciousness in bursts of interconnected experiences that avoid forcing her process into a single tidy narrative. Instead, she grows up incrementally through each credible burst of events. Collectively, however, they fuel a single portrait. Sciamma is near-Hitchcockian in her use of images fraught with meaning to develop a steady build, starting with the moment after Marieme joins the gang and clandestinely pockets a knife from her parents' kitchen.
More violent possibilities await. Before she figures out her priorities, Marieme relishes in the opportunity to turn bad, and finds plenty of encouraging company. At the head of her newfound group is a ferocious woman who goes by the nickname "Lady," and her hyperactive need to shoot a fiery gaze at every figure heading her direction gives Marieme all the ammunition she needs to do the same. Touré's face often displays transitions from profound sadness to unhindered fury that cut far deeper than any of her companions, so it comes as no surprise when she eventually outgrows their form of rebellion and falls in with a much more dangerous crowd, risking her safety and experimenting with her burgeoning sexuality. Her peers aptly nickname her "Vic," for "victory," because once Marieme gets going, that's all she can focus on.
But what's the end game for all these rage? "Girlhood" smartly leaves that element unanswered. Sciamma treats her protagonists with the same degree of intelligence allotted to characters twice their age, at once sympathizing with Marieme's plight as the product of her troubled socioeconomic climate without pitying her. Nobody gives her an easy out; the movie's suspense expertly builds out of her own process of sussing out the options at her disposal.
Sciamma avoids overstating this arc with perfunctory dialogue. Instead, much of the themes in play unfold in physical terms: One prolonged sequence finds the girls partying in a hotel room, lip-syncing to Rihanna's "Diamonds" while bathed in blue light, as if celebrating a carefree fantasy of their own creation. Such nonchalance is later balanced off by the brutal choreography of a street fight and the naturalistic intensity of a dance-off. No matter how inelegant their dialogue, "Girlhood" never strays from its authentic approach.
Though "Girlhood" deals with race by implication, its main line of inquiry is universal (which, ironically, makes it something of anomaly among movies exclusively focused on minorities). Marieme's decisions alternate from terrible and destructive to heroic, but it's never entirely clear which way she'll take it. In the final shot, the character drifts in and out of frame with a pair of disparate expressions that cover the full spectrum of emotions she's experiencing—from fear to determination—without a single word. Ultimately, "Girlhood" chronicles her constant willingness to push back on new trials. "You act so smart, but what do you know?" one of her friends says in the midst of a quarrel. With each passing moment, the movie strives to answer that question.
"Girlhood" premiered this week at Directors' Fortnight in Cannes. It does not yet have U.S. distribution.