Movie Review: Girlhood

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Sixteen-year-old Marieme falls in with a bad crowd as she navigates growing up in the outskirts of Paris.

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Celine Sciamma, 2014

Marieme (Karidja Toure) lives with her abusive brother and cares for her two younger sisters while her mother works as a maid to support them. In spite of her difficult home life, Marieme enjoys playing American football in her free time, and wants to continue with her schooling career. The teachers dissuade her, though, and drive her into the waiting arms of a girl gang. Led by the charismatic Lady (Assa Sylla), the group bullies other girls for money and gets into fights, but also offers Marieme fun and companionship outside her family home. Their behaviour escalates, and soon Marieme finds herself in over her head, with her little sister following in her footsteps. The teen has to make some tough decisions about her life, adjusting to the situations she finds herself in.

girlhood

Girlhood is perhaps better described by its French title (roughly translated to “band of girls”), as it is very much a story not so much about the universality of being a girl as it is about finding companionship and support in other girls. It explores the nature of poverty and disadvantage in some really cool ways, and it exists entirely in Marieme’s space; we don’t often see white or male faces, and those we do see are largely threats. Marieme’s world is one without opportunities or much hope, but she navigates it with tenacity; she’s a survivor, a chameleon, turning into whatever will get her through life the best. Femininity and masculinity are both explored, with Marieme moving through both with ease, changing her hair and presentation to fit in. When Lady is humiliated in a fight with another girl, her father cuts off her hair as punishment. There’s also a particularly nasty fight between Marieme and another girl that involves humiliation, just as a warning for anyone thinking of seeing this; it was hard to get through. Marieme’s decisions are largely made for survival, but sometimes we get a sense of the real girl shining through; sometimes cruel, sometimes caring. It’s hard to get a grip on her character, though, since she largely reacts rather than acting. This isn’t to knock Toure’s performance, which is very strong; she was cast perfectly, and she capably emotes throughout some tough scenes and transitions. Sylla’s Lady is also terrific, full of bravado and vulnerability, and the character is one of the most interesting.

I had some real issues with the structure of this movie. It drops us in to Marieme’s life at a seemingly random point in time, and then just as you think we might get some closure, the film ends as abruptly as it began. The football match we see at the beginning is never referenced again, and none of the story lines are wrapped up. In fact, the whole final act is pretty removed from the first two segments of the film, and it’s enough to distance the audience from the film pretty efficiently. I feel very strongly that a film should have a story, and one of the basic storytelling tenets is that you need a beginning, middle, and end, but Girlhood is all middle, with Marieme’s arc going unfinished. It’s a long movie, and while there are some incredible, powerful scenes, there’s not a lot of momentum to keep the audience’s interest. There are moments when the screen goes black for too long to be comfortable. Girlhood is a beautiful looking film, though. Celine Sciamma has a good grasp of space and colours, inverting the usual associations of light and dark. For Marieme, the best things happen under the cover of darkness, and the harsh light of day only shines a light on her oppression. It’s a tough film, but it has its merits; if only someone had taken a pair of editing scissors to it and given it some structure, it could be a great one.

Girlhood on IMDb

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