Cheap, I know. But I can't help go back to the Spice Girls' "girl power" motto-mantra, and that initial rush of "tell me what you want what you really really want" the-world-is-yours-teenage-empowerment, as a starting point to talk of French director Céline Sciamma's wonderful third feature. Girlhood is all about "girl power", whether absent, latent or present, refusing to perpetuate the idea of what a film about the "disaffected project youths" should be, giving it the finger at every possible occasion. (Or almost.)
Girlhood undercuts viewer expectations from the start - with an American football game that turns out to be played by an all-female team from a Paris suburb - and its centre piece scene features four black girls, dressed up to the nines, letting their flags fly to the sound of Rihanna's "Diamonds". In between, our heroine Marieme (the great Karidja Touré) must run the gauntlet of what it means to be a black girl living in the Parisian suburbs that turn out to be ghettos in all but name. She is condemned by the world around her to a pre-ordained social position, destined to be a second-class citizen with little to no say on her fate - not only by the strictures of a society that would box her in with little regard to her actual desires, talents and ambitions, but even by her own blood kin, duplicating those same strictures within their own sub-culture.
Even the haven Marieme finds with the sassy schoolyard rebels she begins to hang out with - Lady (Assa Sylla), Adiatou (Lindsay Karamoh) and Fily (Mariétou Touré), who talk back and take charge in what end up being equally masculine kick-ass stuff - turns out to be temporary. It's just another set of obstacles to overcome as each new experience propels this inquisitive, restless girl, yearning for a "normality" that the world seems to refuse her, towards adulthood. In the superb "Diamonds" sequence, Girlhood captures perfectly the defiance and the desires of a generation left to fend for itself, growing up without a light at the end of the tunnel, and yet still dancing on the edge of an abyss.
Ms. Sciamma does so by refusing to victimize the girls, over-play the "problem picture" card or pretend there can be a magic exit for all this. Instead, she prefers to treat Marieme and the others as complex, full-bodied young women stuck in complex circumstances, learning about themselves and how to navigate their surroundings as best they can. Even if the narrative progression is occasionally hackneyed due to its obligatory passages (almost like rituals for this sort of film), the way Ms. Sciamma articulates it is extremely alluring - in "blocks" centred on the girls' experiences, interspersed with fades to black that leave out what is unnecessary, focussing on what really matters with an intensity, a clear-eyed look and a generosity that avoid boxing them in and reducing them to mere archetypes. It's always shot with a cool, intelligent eye, taking into account that this is an empowering film about standing up to the world around you and owning up to your decisions.
It's what's inside that counts, not the colour of your skin, what gender you are, who do you hang out with, where do you come from. What Marieme really, really wants is to be herself - and this wonderfully generous film about her, and her friends, lets her be herself.
BANDE DE FILLES
Cast Karidja Touré, Assa Sylla, Lindsay Karamoh, Mariétou Touré
Director, screenwriter and costume designer Céline Sciamma; cinematographer Crystel Fournier; composer Jean-Baptiste de Laubier; designer Thomas Grézaud; editor Julien Lacheray; producer Bénédicte Couvreur, Hold-Up Films & Productions and Lilies Films in co-production with ARTE France Cinéma
Screened August 22, 2015, Lisbon, distributor screener