a theatre, film & pop culture review
Who: Céline Sciamma, director & screenwriter
What: Foreign Drama
Where: Netflix streaming
When: Released October 20, 2014 (France)
Why Watch: Céline Sciamma is a French screenwriter and film director known for strikingly minimalist work. Completing a trilogy of coming-of-age films for the director (begun with Water Lilies and Tomboy), Girlhood is notable not only as a film about black teenaged girls (if only this weren’t such a rarity!) – most of whom, including the lead, never acted before – but as one helmed by a white director, which has caused some controversy.
Céline Sciamma’s Girlhood has more in common with Deniz Gamze Ergüven’s breathtakingly feminist Mustang than that other Oscar-nominated film that may come to mind (the gimmicky Boyhood). This coming-of-age film deftly examines issues of race and class amidst a larger exploration of its titular adolescence – but not of the stereotypical “female” kind. Opening with a shot of a (American) football game – all helmets and padding and rough tackling – set to a pulsing techno beat and ending with raucous cheering, Sciamma immediately discards any preconceived expectations of a teenaged girl film – Pretty in Pink this definitely is not. All of the footballers are (mostly black) girls.
The camera follows one of these 16-year-olds, Marieme (a remarkable Karidja Touré), home through a Paris suburb of housing projects. As her friends peel off one by one to their own homes, Marieme transforms from a lanky tower of garrulous pride to a physically smaller, inverted version of herself – and for good reason. Outside the protected bubble of female friendship, her home life is tumultuous (an abusive brother awaits her) and school isn’t much better (her advisor insists she’s only fit for vocational studies, but she’s desperate to go to high school). So when she falls into a girl gang of brash dropouts who nonchalantly shoplift and delight in catfights, you think you know where this is all going.
But Sciamma isn’t interested in the falling-in-with-the-wrong-crowd trope. Friendship – especially female friendship – is much more complex than that. Marieme hesitantly joins in on these reckless activities, becoming a low-key bully to her classmates, drinking, and donning gold chains and leather jackets, but more significantly, she transforms into a confident young woman who begins to ask for exactly what she wants rather than simply accept what’s given to her. Buoyed by her new-found friends who support and mock her in equal measure, the self-assurance and blissful bonding peaks in a blue-lit hotel room where the girls dress up and lip-sync, dancing with abandon, to Rhianna’s “Diamonds.” In this moment in that small room, they, for once, have the space to be themselves and revel in their youth and each other. It’s gloriously free and innocent.
Sciamma insists her film isn’t about black girls – it’s about girls who just so happen to be black. Though her intention isn’t to explore that specificity, setting these girls in this time and place means that issues of poverty, class, and race rise to the surface, making her white feminist gaze hard to ignore, especially in regards to Girlhood‘s mostly villainous portrayal of black men. It’s a tricky line to balance when representation (especially those helmed by black female directors) is scarce, and for the most part, Sciamma subtly skims the surface – mostly with long, physical sequences largely sans dialogue – smartly observing those issues rather than commenting on them directly. There are some developments in Marieme’s life that are questionably wrought, but her journey is always hers to decide, even as she must work within a man’s world that consistently limits her. Though Girlhood‘s ending is disarmingly unresolved – does Marieme make it out to a better life? – we’re left with the liberating memories of those now-distant friendships. “You have to do what you want,” the brashest of her friends once told her. We’re led to believe that Marieme, now empowered thanks to those friends, will continue to do just that.
Bechdel Test: PASS
Racial Bechdel Test: PASS