Movie Review - Girlhood (Bande de Filles)
Written and directed by Céline Sciamma, a white lesbian, this film opens with a night-time football game. It's rough and tumble. It's not clear that all the football players are girls, until after it's over and you're convinced they're all boys. This is how Sciamma brilliantly subverts expectations and gender presumptions right off the bat.
Karidja Touré stars as Marieme, a 16-year-old, black girl living in a poor neighborhood in France, just outside Paris. She has an older brother who is very strict on her, mainly because they have no father in the picture and their mother is hardly around due to her need to work and pay bills. She also has a younger sister who totally looks up to her. She loves her sister and is protective of her, while she fears her older brother. She's a bit depressed because of her socioeconomic position and because she's not able to go to the school she wants.
Sciamma subtly lays the groundwork for how education or lack thereof can affect the path a young person takes. Yet, Sciamma isn't necessarily interested in making grander proclamations on society or pointed commentary. This is simply a coming-of-age story, but centering on a person who is a gender and skin color that often doesn't get this kind of center stage. Most major movies in the United States, if they focus on a young girl, the focus is on young, white girl. There aren't many black actresses of this age-range in the national consciousness. There are young, American black actresses out there, but they rarely get the kind of platform say Jennifer Lawrence or Kristen Stewart get. One girl that came close was Meagan Good. Another was Keke Palmer whose breakout film Akeelah and the Bee and even her film this year Brotherly Love share a lot of the same themes and plot and cultural details as this one.
I'm not well-versed in French-language films, but of recent cinema that boasts that European tongue, this movie feels just as powerful and as engrossing as The Kid With a Bike all the way to Blue is the Warmest Color. Yet, one doesn't need to be well-versed in French-language films. One can look at the wealth of African-American films from the 1980's or 90's. There is much comparison, most notably in the authentic resonance.
The story focuses on Marieme joining a group of girls whom are three looking for a fourth. There are noticeably other groups of only four girls. There's no explanation as to why there are only four. So many music groups, male and female, have been only four. It seems to be a nice round number. Marieme is reluctant at first, but eventually she goes along and becomes the fourth member. She meets the other three: Lady, Adiatou and Fily.
Marieme in actuality joins the group because the three girls are friends with a particular boy that she likes. What begins as a means to be closer to Ismaël, played by Idrissa Diabaté, the handsome teenage boy at which she can't help but stare, turns into an empowerment of a meek and mild girl evolving into a strong, liberated and independent woman. Her path to empowerment isn't a perfect one, as she quickly learns that the three girls utilize tactics like bullying and fighting to get what they want.
Yet, what Sciamma does, which is equally brilliant, is that she doesn't make these three girls villains or villainous. They're human beings and Sciamma portrays them as such. Even in small ways, Sciamma is able to let us know who these three girls are. We're not given a full back-story on each girl. Such would have been appreciated, but the sense is conveyed that these girls are not unlike Marieme herself.
The key difference is that Marieme feels the need to push back a little quicker and a little harder. She's a bit more restless and she's not as willing to standing still. She's smart enough that she can adapt fast, not be satisfied with status quo and move on. Her decisions may be dangerous or cause her pain, but regardless she has to keep stepping forward. This is exemplified in the film's final shot.
Along the way, Sciamma gives us such beautiful scenes. Two musical numbers in particular are beautiful and are sheer moments of bonding between the girls. One is a dance to Rihanna's "Diamonds," which now has that song stuck in my head. The other is a dance to J. Dash's "Wop." There's also the numerous scenes of the four girls being there for each other, standing up for each other, teasing each other, making each other laugh and comforting each other. It's all beautiful.
Without hitting us over the head with it, Sciamma also slyly challenges the very notion of what being a girl even means. In a year that will no doubt be notable to the transgender movement, this film has to be one that's included in the conversation. This is not to say that there are any transgender characters or even any gay characters. Sciamma is simply saying that girlhood, womanhood or femininity in general doesn't have to be defined as one or even two things, or by any one outside or even around you. It's up to the girl herself to define it.
Five Stars out of Five.
Not Rated but contains some violence, language and sexual situations.
Running Time: 1 hr. and 53 mins.