CANNES – French writer-director Celine Sciamma brought empathetic observation and emotional insight to high school girls coming of age in her 2007 debut, Water Lilies, and to a preteen girl’s instinctual exploration of gender identity in 2011’s Tomboy. Her gorgeous third feature, Girlhood (Bande de Filles) combines variations on those themes and takes them in bracing new directions, reflecting on the paths of “girlz n the hood” — in this case the projects of suburban Paris — with tenderness, honesty and a rigorous avoidance of sentimentality. Driven by a magnetic central performance from stunning newcomer Karidja Toure, this looks to make a significant splash on the international art house radar.
It’s been almost 20 years since Mathieu Kassovitz‘s trenchant foray into a tough outer-Parisian banlieue in La Haine, and on many levels there are parallels with the ethnically mixed, economically disadvantaged underclass examined in Sciamma’s film. But while La Haine was fueled by its visceral rawness and violent intensity, Girlhood is a thoughtful, far more intimate portrait of characters whose toughness doesn’t exclude vulnerability, humor or even sweetness. There have been countless views of urban life and its limited prospects in movies, but the gaze here feels entirely fresh.
Sciamma and her cinematographer, Crystel Fournier, capture with spot-on specificity the milieu of these girls: the slab concrete-block architecture of the apartment buildings where they live; the mall at Les Halles where they go to hang out and shoplift; the square at La Defense where they dance to hip-hop music in the shadow of the Grande Arche. And yet these characters and their behavior are as imminently recognizable as teens from, say, New York or London.
Anyone who regularly rides subways in a large metropolis has probably experienced nervous moments when teenage girls get loud and volatile, egging one another on and getting in the face of other passengers. But Sciamma gets beyond the badass posturing and anger to show what’s ticking away underneath. Her approach is both smart and disarming.
Set to punchy electropop by Para One, the terrific opening takes in the end of an American football match at night between two girls’ teams of mostly black players. Helmeted and uniformed with massive shoulder-pads, the girls look like gladiators, which cleverly establishes the theme of young women eager to explore personas beyond the conventional roles assigned to them.
Sixteen-year-old Marieme (Toure) returns home from the match and we see casual evidence of her affectionate relationship with her two younger sisters, while their surly brother, Djibril (Cyril Mendy), keeps to himself and his street crew. Their mother is mostly absent doing night-shift cleaning work. A flirtation between Marieme and Ismael (Idrissa Diabate) is kept on hold out of the boy’s fear of showing disrespect to Djibril.
When she learns that her grades are not good enough to continue high school, Marieme falls in with a gang of three local girls led with cool authority by Lady (Assa Sylla). She watches them shyly from the sidelines at first, but soon becomes immersed in their slacker routines, changing her dress code, swapping her braids for a more glam look and helping to fund their fun-time by fleecing her former schoolmates for cash. Lady gives her the gang name Vic.
Sciamma gets superbly naturalistic performances from her nonprofessional cast, in particular the four-girl gang — Adiatou (Lindsay Karamoh) and Fily (Marietou Toure) round out the group — all of whom show distinct personalities and defining attitudes. In the film’s exhilarating high point, they stock up on booze, pot, snacks and stolen fly-girl outfits and check in to a hotel, singing along to Rihanna‘s “Diamonds” at the peak of their partying. It’s a beautiful scene of giddy empowerment that also hints at the melancholy uncertainty of where their lives are headed. That note is subtly amplified as the action progresses in a fluid succession of episodic scenes.
The group dynamic shifts when Lady takes a humiliating beating from a rival girl-gang leader, and Vic doles out the payback. That gains her the newfound respect of Djibril when word gets around. But exposure of her incipient relationship with Ismael underscores the constricting rules for women, which are no less apparent when Vic starts selling drugs for another local crew.
With its sharp, composed look and elegant tracking shots, this handsomely made film removes any distance between the audience and the protagonist. It loses a little momentum in the later action and could perhaps be tightened by five or 10 minutes, but Sciamma’s deep personal investment in her characters and their world keeps it riveting, refreshingly steering it away from predictable tragic developments toward a more ambiguous conclusion. Where many filmmakers would have underlined the bleaker, harsher aspects, Girlhood presents the characters’ grim reality without surrendering its lightness of touch, its compassion or its hope.
As delicate and memorable as Tomboy was, this is a major step forward that marks Sciamma as a singular talent. And Toure, in the lead role, is a real find. Solemn and self-possessed at times and joyously unguarded at others, Marianne/Vic visibly hardens herself as she struggles to figure out whom she wants to be, while never quite concealing the fragile girl inside.
Production companies: Hold Up Films, Lilies Films, Arte France Cinema
Cast: Karidja Toure, Assa Sylla, Lindsay Karamoh, Marietou Toure, Idrissa Diabate, Simina Soumare, Cyril Mendy, Djibril Gueye
Director: Celine Sciamma
Screenwriter: Celine Sciamma
Producer: Benedicte Couvreur
Director of photography: Crystel Fournier
Production designer: Thomas Grezaud
Costume designer: Celine Sciamma
Editor: Julien Lacheray
Music: Para One
Sales: Films Distribution
No rating, 112 minutes