Bold, brawling, beautifully observed, and acted with wonderful conviction, Girlhood is a blast of oxygen to the coming-of-age genre; an energetic, hugely uplifting, and fascinatingly textured film that’s both a lament for sweetness lost and a celebration of wisdom and identity gained, often at the very same moment.
Fed up with an abusive family situation, dead-end school prospects, and the “boys’ law” in the neighbourhood, Marieme starts a new life after meeting a group of three free-spirited girls. She changes her name and style, drops out of school, and begins stealing to be accepted into the gang. When her home becomes unbearable, Marieme seeks solace in an older man who promises her money and protection. Realizing the lifestyle will never result in the freedom and independence she desires, she finally decides to take matters into her own hands.
Buoyed by a captivating central performance from stunning newcomer Karidja Touré, Girlhood contains a few standout scenes of daring camaraderie and carefree elation. Led by the swaggering alpha Lady (Assa Sylla), the foursome pools their pilfered resources together for a one-night hotel stay, an occasion for pizza partying, bubble baths, bong hits, and, most rapturously, a lip-synched/sing-along performance to Rihanna’s “Diamonds.” Bathed in blue light, intoxicated by temporary freedom, the young women are “a vision of ecstasy.”
Writer-director Céline Sciamma (Water Lilies, Tomboy) gets unaffected performances from her entire non-professional cast – who were scouted from the street – expertly placing them in the nebulous region between child and adult. (Sciamma was mentored by brilliant minimalist Xavier Beauvois (Of Gods and Men), during her time at the major French film school, La Fémis.) Sciamma’s touch is more nimble and nuanced in Girlhood, and she refuses to pin any of its characters down, even in their vacillations. It’s a fascinating exercise in the enlightenment that can happen when a filmmaker shifts the traditional male cinematic gaze slightly and uncovers a whole new world.
Sciamma pushes past superficial anthropological study to deliver a vital, nonjudgmental character study. Even as she stops at familiar stations on the road to maturity – problems at home, new friendships, first love – Sciamma revels in the risky, reckless exuberance of adolescence and basks in the sheer joy of filming every minute of it. The tense, involving result confirms Sciamma’s mastery over a genre too often reduced to its simplest ingredients. The milieu is Pariah, but it’s combined with the yearning naiveté of An Education’s Jenny Mallor and the dangerous experimentation of Thirteen’s Tracy Freeland.
Girlhood’s non-patronizing, credible representation of class, race, and gender is a rare and perceptive illustration of the intricacies of social inequality. While the malignant power that comes from having a scary home life never dissipates, Girlhood doesn’t feel like a misery-mongering expression of high-minded, condescending concern. It presents the characters’ grim reality without surrendering its lightness of touch, its compassion, or its hope.
In many ways, Girlhood is (quite aptly) the feminist answer to Boyhood: whereas Boyhood has the natural endpoint of Mason growing into a young adult, Girlhood stretches out in front of Marieme, an uncertain path leading into a milky haze. It captures the emotional minefield of adolescence and the intensity of female friendship, with a visceral blow to wherever those memories lay dormant. Marieme’s new friends are almost a necessary influence: she needs to step sideways, before she can step forward.
Illustrating the ways an indifferent society boxes in the people who grow up in project-style boxes, Girlhood throbs with the global now, yet remains keyed to the minutiae of the teenage lives portrayed therein. Raw, insistent, and precisely directed – especially in a bravura opening football sequence that inverts expectations – Girlhood veers between being a celebration of defensively violent sisterhood and a chronicle of the vicious cycle of poverty, yanking us into the life of its protagonist.
Near the end, Sciamma cuts to a close-up of Marieme climbing carpeted stairs to a swank, all-white party. She’s shed her usual hoodie and jeans and donned black heels, a flaming red cocktail dress, and an ice-blond wig. She’s never looked more womanly, and she’s never been more trapped. Girlhood has all the punchy life force and quiet determination of its 16-year-old heroine.