Editor’s Notes: The following review is part of our coverage of the TIFF’s Next Wave Film Festival 2015. Girlhood also opens at TIFF Bell Lightbox on Friday, February 27th. For more information on this TIFF film series visit http://tiff.net and follow TIFF on Twitter at @TIFF_NET.
The original French title of Céline Sciamma’s third feature film is Bande de filles, which roughly translates as ‘group of girls.’ As the title implies, Sciamma here continues her thematic coordinates of female identities, specifically in Parisian spaces, as she focuses on a group of young women who live in the ethnic banlieues located in the periphery of Paris. The film specifically follows sixteen-year-old Marieme (Karidja Touré) and immediately establishes the narrow conditions in which she lives: too low grades to go on to a regular high school; an oppressive home where her older brother keeps his check on her by hitting; and the sole prospect of being a maid like her mother (which accounts for her frequent absence in the home). As if physically feeling the burden of the lack of opportunities, Marieme in the beginning is timid, soft-spoken, inward, and hesitant. She is the same when a group of three girls her age invite her to go to Paris to hang out and have fun. But just as quickly, she decides to join them and assert a different sense of self, in the hopes that something may happen—if only to have an escape from the monotonous indeterminacy that is her life. With a restrained documentary visual style to capture these girls’ lives and their environment, as intimately and plainly as possible, Girlhood is a candid and affecting work on the doubly marginalised perspective of black females in France.
In truth, the film is only as good as the performances, and the four young women whom Sciamma and her crew cast are genuinely effective in conveying the psychological complexity of their characters…
In truth, the film is only as good as the performances, and the four young women whom Sciamma and her crew cast are genuinely effective in conveying the psychological complexity of their characters: boldness, vulnerability, desire, resentment, resignation, sadness, and elation. Lady (Assa Sylla) is the leader of the group, engaging in fights, calling the shots, and ensuring the group dynamic between the four girls; Adiatou (Lindsay Karamoh) is the comic, always providing a line of humour and abundant energy; Fily (Marietou Touré) is quiet but nevertheless palpable as a necessary presence in the group; and Marieme, who is newly christened Vic (short for victoire, as Lady explains) to represent the significance of her joining the group and shift in identity/outlook. On the one hand, the character of Marieme requires of Karidja Touré to carry the entire film and portray her emotional development from timid and innocent to aggressive and desiring. Touré pulls off a solid, believable performance, with a hint of stoicism perhaps born from her lack of experience in acting but which aids in avoiding melodramatics. On the other hand, the performances of the other three actresses are just as crucial to the film’s strong emotional quality. Together, the four characters present a different take on ‘girlhood’–with the English title inviting the play on ‘girls’ and their ‘hood.’
Marieme’s choices may not make sense, and even frustrate, from the point of view of an anticipated ‘happy ending.’ Girlhood is simply not the type of film to have such a conclusion; it is imprecise and uncertain…
Significantly, a running theme in the film is the rivalry between different groups of girls from different neighbourhoods in the periphery, manifested in the form of organised fights, verbal taunts, dress, and dancing. Sciamma presents this specific culture of girlhood in a straightforward and unadorned manner, all the better to register the ways in which these girls live, speak, establish friendships and rivalries, and maintain bonds; she allows both the girls and their environment to speak through. Some of the film’s most poignant and memorable moments involve precisely the four girls hanging out and getting to know each other’s personality. Perhaps most poignant and memorable of all is of the girls lip-syncing and dancing to Rihanna’s “Diamonds,” shot in a long take and lit in beautiful soft blue. The longer Sciamma holds on to the scene, the more she encapsulates these girls’ energy, desires, and ambitions, and their friendship, which is one of the few empowering aspects of their everyday lives. By itself, this long take expresses the girls’ dynamic, creative qualities, individually and collectively, and their longing for independence, with the setting of the hotel room that they reserve as a kind of oasis from their normal, limited lives. Within the overall fabric of the film, this long take expresses the high point of their friendship. For Marieme will further break out of her shell to try to forge a path for herself and escape the restricted conditions in which she lives, to the point of breaking off ties with both her friends and family.
Marieme’s choices may not make sense, and even frustrate, from the point of view of an anticipated ‘happy ending.’ Girlhood is simply not the type of film to have such a conclusion; it is imprecise and uncertain, much like the options that Marieme has to choose from for herself, especially de-emphasising her gender in order to be taken seriously as well as defend herself in the company of males. But therein lies the film’s emotional strength in its depiction of a girl entering adulthood in an accelerated way, by necessity: she still exerts individual will and, in doing so, reveals herself, flaws and all.
With a restrained documentary visual style to capture these girls’ lives and their environment, as intimately and plainly as possible, Girlhood is a candid and affecting work on the doubly marginalised perspective of black females in France.