Synopsis: French filmmaker Céline Sciamma’s coming-of-age drama “Bande de filles” (English title: Girlhood) follows Marieme, a high schooler who feels oppressed by her family environment, dead-end future prospects, and the rowdy boys in her neighborhood, whose life gets a much-desired lift when she meets a group of 3 free-spirited girls. She changes her name, her dress code, and quits school to be accepted by her new friends, hoping that becoming a part of their clique will provide her with the escape she’s long wanted.
The short version of the trailer for Girlhood is a single long pan across the faces of a group of Black girls lined up talking, joking and interacting in the middle of a busy Parisian square.
That single shot brought tears to my eyes. Why? Because I am a hungry reviewer.
Let’s backtrack: As a result of the English title of the film, Girlhood has been regularly compared and contrasted to the Oscar nominated feature Boyhood by Richard Linklater. When asked about this comparison during an interview with Indiewire, director and writer Céline Sciamma stated:
The two [approaches] are so opposite, but they are starting from the same belief, which I think is really interesting. With these titles, both movies are deciding that they are saying what is universal. Linklater is saying, and he’s right, that what is average is a middle-class white boy’s parents’ divorce, college, average student, average dreams, and he’s telling a lot about today with that [kind] of character. I’m deciding that “universal” is actually something that is not — it’s actually the margin; I’m putting the margin at the center. He’s looking at someone in the center, the middle.
As storytellers we create new universes for the audience and as an audience member who has watched an innumerable number of films that are not familiar to my actual lived experience I am used to taking that leap of faith and finding some way to connect and invest in these characters and perspectives that are not reflective of my life. It is part and parcel of what it means to be a Black female film lover. I did it for Boyhood and loved Boyhood. However Girlhood, in putting at the centre what is usually at the margins, created a film that was my universal.
Most descriptions of the film (outside of the official-sounding synopsis above I found on Shadow and Act) begin something like this: a young girl joins an all-girl gang in the banlieue’s of Paris and begins to discover who she is as she is forced to make choices about the life she wants for herself. Since watching the film at TIFF’s Next Wave Film Festival, I smile to myself whenever I read the term girl gang in the description. The literal translation of the French title Bande des Filles is indeed Gang of Girls. This girl gang portrayed in the film was simply a group of friends to me. A group of friends whose perspectives, priorities and personalities were indelibly shaped by the environment they lived in. Friends that take different roles within the group and these roles come with power dynamics that are not static but shift, move and change as life gets in the way, constantly testing the previously believed natural order of things.These are the stories, the perspectives, the priorities, the personalities and the roles that I have been so hungry to see on the screen.
It is this hunger that perhaps makes me a terrible reviewer for this film. The same way McDonald’s fries taste like the greatest thing ever after a night of clubbing, drinking and dancing on an empty stomach, is perhaps the same way I watched this film. Then again those same fries usually sit heavily the next morning, whereas this film continued to inspire and stimulate thought in me. Alternatively I could say that it is perhaps this hunger makes me the best reviewer. As a Black feminist and a sociologist, I don’t believe in objectivity. We are all subjects shaped by our social, historical and political context and all of these things inform the lens by which we view the world. Although I have never lived in Paris, I do know something about growing up in a neighbourhood a little something like the one captured in Girlhood, with girls a little something like the one’s centered here and I have made decisions very similar to those of Marieme more than once. So perhaps I am the expert perspective, perhaps I have the inside scoop.
Written and directed by Céline Sciamma, Girlhood made its world premiere as a 2014 Directors’ Fortnight Selection at the Cannes Film Festial and was an official selection at the 2014 Toronto International Film Festival and the 2015 Sundance Film Festival. It is the third installment in what Sciamma now calls her trilogy of coming of age films that are rounded out by her 2007 film Water Lillies and her 2011 film Tomboy. Masterfully shot, it is a pleasure to watch these young women captured in these beautiful and intimate frames. The casting process reportedly took four months, with actresses scouted from the street for the film and this effort was not for naught. Karidja Touré is brilliant as our heroine Marieme, balancing a deep watchfulness, layered vulnerability and a growing sense of self that becomes more powerful as the film progresses. The performance of Assa Sylla as Lady was another stand out as she teetered on that thin line between mentor and bully in such a compelling and heart-tugging ways. Her singular influence on Marieme is pivotal. She see’s Marieme and recognizes in her something that is invisible to the school system and members of her family. Lady pushes Marieme to assert her presence and do what she wants to do without apology or explanation. It is a beautiful portrayal of a Black girl riding for another while attempting to navigate her own individual desire for power, respect and recognition. The ways that Black girls ride for each other is a rare subject in feature film and these moments between the two are poignant reminders of simultaneously painful and beautiful personal memories. Both Karidja Toure and Assa Sylla were selected by the French Academy to be honoured with its Révélations des César, a breakthrough award for newcomers; or performers to watch (FYI: The César is the French equivalent to the Oscars in the US).
Exploring issues of education, employment, romantic relationships, violence, criminality, social status and family, Girlhood traverses many themes without attempting to become expository on any of them. Marieme’s mother for example is always only seen at her place of her work and never in the home. Instead it is her older brother who adopts the role of patriarch and disciplinarian. Their relationship is contextualized (if not explained) by this reality that he is a young boy taking on the responsibility meant for an adult and the aggression that defines much of the relationship between he and Marieme is a reflection of his crude interpretation of how that role should manifest.
Much ado has been made of the argument and fight scenes in Girlhood. The neighbourhood fight between Lady and a young woman from a supposedly rival crew had the familiar undertone of the after-school fights I often witnessed and sometimes was involved in. We would all run across the street from the school to the park, away from the watchful eye of teachers to form a circle around the ladies as spectators and judges, knowing that not only were we receiving immediate “entertainment” but at the end we would have a story to tell and retell with more and more embellishment for the next few months. In the film, one of these scenes is a metaphorical dethroning of “the queen” and witnessing the subsequent shame she endures from neighbourhood boys and even her father. These moments heartbreakingly illustrate the distinct gendered dynamics of femininity in the hood (or banlieue) where the perception of strength is integral to respect. The added layer of the immediate documentation through cell phone video and the footage going viral (something that was not around when I was in high school thank goodness) is a more contemporary addition to the experience that deepens the humiliation and makes the recovery that much more of an uphill battle. Although much discussion has gone into the decision of portraying these fights by the filmmaker, little has been made of the way these fights also become a site and space for girls to defend each other while asserting a sense of themselves. It is here that we see most vividly the way the crew rides for each other; while respecting the one-on-one nature of the fight they make sure to create space to defend the dignity and reputation of the shamed individual as well as the entire crew (because they are both one and the same). The way that defence is read and understood by all involved is quietly complex and layered (in the complex and layered ways that Black women love each other) and is portrayed brilliantly by young actress Assa Sylla.
There were key points though of disconnect. When the movie began I thought I was watching the wrong film. It opened to the sound of Skull Fuct by Light Asylum, a Brooklyn based electronic music duo and it felt…odd. Perhaps this was the intent; Céline Sciamma has said of the opening sequence (specifically addressing the visuals) that: “I really wanted to open the movie with an epic sequence and a kind of disconnect from the rest…” which I understand with the visuals but not so much with the sound because the disconnect in sound was not limited to the opening scene but rather continued throughout. That disjuncture between soundscape/soundtrack and image has been noted by other critics who identify a lack of aural rhythm to the film. In comparison to other coming of age movies such as Crooklyn, Pariah or Love and Basketball or films focused on life in the hood such as City of God, Boys in the Hood or La Haine or films that center the friendship between Black women such Waiting to Exhale or Set it Off, the absence of a fitting soundtrack in Girlhood was deafening by contrast. La Haine for example is deeply grounded in Hip Hop – not only the music but also the culture as all four primary elements are present and pulsating throughout the film.This grounding roots it in something authentic, raw and tangible. It allows for the connectivity to be that much more visceral. One of the few moments that Girlhood gets it right was beautifully identified by Fariha Rosen in her review of the film for Hairpin. It is a scene where the girls are in a rented out hotel room, decked out in new (stolen) outfits, singing and dancing to Diamonds by Rihanna. Blue light gives their skin a glow revealing undeniably to the viewer a meaning in the song that I had never heard before; these Black girls are diamonds. Rosen writes:
“Do you know how audacious it is for not one, but four dark skinned girls, to be on screen singing the lyrics: Tonight/You and I/We’re beautiful/Like diamonds in the sky” with a disregard and ease that is only ever reserved for white kids? These girls aren’t lamenting their darkness, they are wholeheartedly embracing what they are because they’re never given an option not to. Like whiteness, they normalize their blackness, by never acknowledging a difference.”
As a film written and directed by a white woman there is an undeniably outsider lens that emerges within particular storytelling decisions. However I still maintain that Sciamma was able to tap into a truth and authenticity of experience that is not wholly reliant upon tropes and has more complexity than some may give credit. It definitely stands though in contrast to the 2011 coming-of-age film Pariah (written and directed by Dee Rees). Pariah featured a young Black woman from a middle class family who is a poet at heart and has a love for punk music and Hip Hop and as such it was powerfully transformative for stepping outside of a typical understanding of Black femininity. In many ways it spoke to directly to me and memories of my high school self; I too was a literary nerd who would always choose a book over a video game (novels > poetry in my case though). I was experimenting with different circles trying to find where I fit in, only to realize later that my position was one that would forever be on the cusp of a number of scenes but never quite comfortable inside a single one. In many ways though as I watched the film, I wished that I had been as cool and worldly in high school as Alike, the heroine of the film seemed to be. Although confused she had access to spaces, people and cultural resources to experiment, test and determine who she was. That access came later for me. In high school, my world was very small and that reality of a small world where you have little to do means that the testing and experimentation takes place within very limited confines. For some, this may mean living out what others might call simplistic stereotypes.
The first half of the film is where I was captured and most connected. It focused on this crew of young girls who spend their days roaming shopping malls, stealing clothes, drinking, smoking, teaching each other dances, singing pop songs at the top of their lungs, giving each other advice, having sleepovers in hotel rooms and picking fights with girls. And I fell in love with them. I saw myself in them. I saw my teenage friends and our meandering days spent at malls and basketball courts learning stepping routines, stealing from Ardene and in my early years getting into fights that on the surface were about entertainment but at a deeper level were a reflection of our search for power, meaning and a sense of self-worth/importance. The relationships between these young women were the central and most powerful aspects of the film.
The second half of the film follows Marieme as she takes her chances working for a local drug dealer. It was here that the movie felt like it teetered most dangerously on the moralizing waters of judgment and falling into a message-movie (it doesn’t succumb thank goodness). What becomes most clear in this second half is Marieme’s growth and clearly individual sense of self as she pushes outside of the safety nets that are offered, including those that are mired in what some may call the simplistic stereotypes of Black female life, and determines to walk her own path.
When the final credits rolled with no neat bow provided for a final conclusion, I sat, I sighed and I cried. I had eaten but I was not full. I am still hungry. Why? Because this is just one film. One Story. One Narrative. It cannot do all of the things I want because that would be impossible. I want more. But a very particular craving inside has been satisfied (for the time being). And for that I am thankful.
Girlhood is currently playing at the TIFF Bell Lightbox in Toronto. For showtimes, please click HERE
Check out the full trailer here: