Originally titled Bandes des Filles (“band of girls” or “gangs of girls”) in its native France, Girlhood‘s story specifically follows Marieme. We’re introduced to her as a 16-year-old under-performing schoolgirl that through chance catches the eyes of Lady, the queen bee of a girl gang. Soon Marieme rises as the quiet girl gone gritty, with a fresh (though overly heavy) weave and Air Jordans 5 in tow, robbing and fighting rival girl groups with her crew. But following some more ill-advised attempts at acting like a grown-up or in being mature, she later runs away from home and behaves as a drug-dealing tomboy for a short time.
And yes, the film is in French, which to American audiences, will give the film an extra dosage of fascination because even more rarely than seeing girlhood brought into perspective than just episodic arcs in television and film, is seeing Black girls internationally, with similar dreams and worries, just like us. America will especially connect to the scene where the girls sing with all their hearts to Rihanna‘s “Diamonds” (it’s like a music video within the film).
I realized midway through watching Girlhood exactly what other independent film it reminded me of, The Place Beyond The Pines. As both films explore broken or oppressed family households in considerably bleak surroundings, through the young main characters, the sentiment addressed is that you alone are enough to succeed and survive even in this cold world of ours. But the potentially hurtful truth (at first) is that the journey to such salvation you might have gain solo. I didn’t expect to make this connection between the two, as one takes place in upstate New York and mainly stars White actors, and the other in the hoods of Paris and refreshingly stars (French) Black actresses. But if you’ve seen Beyond The Pines, it’s a likely comparison and Girlhood‘s filmmaker Celine Sciamma and the cast stand as a vision all their own–a teenage girl trying to be her own hero.
Sciamma’s script effortlessly grabs your emotions because you just want Marieme to realize life doesn’t have to be so fight or flight or reckless every damn day. And Sciamma made Marieme a protagonist who is extremely multi-layered, so as a viewer you feel as if you thought you knew her right after she does something completely boorish, but it doesn’t make you want to root for her any less because her environment provokes bad behavior. Pearls will be clutched as you hope she’ll leave every circumstance and conversation unscathed, though that just isn’t the case in Girlhood. The ending has no bows, but it is pensive and considerate of Marieme’s continued journey to free herself of a hard knock life or a subservient position as a female.
As a White female filmmaker, nothing about Sciamma’s words or direction feels condescending or like a caricature to Black teenage girls. It’s about Marieme, who just happens to be a Black girl, trying to find Marieme. Her journey is universal. There’s also the sub-story of Girlhood which is female friendship, another subject often just a fleeting trend in entertainment.
Marieme is played by a newcomer in French cinema, Karidja Touré (and her cheekbones) who excels as the complicated, but sensitive lead. Assa Sylla, who plays the queen bee Lady is another notable with allied attributes to Marieme (but the former is surprisingly more fearless). And rounding out the foursome, are Lindsay Karamoh (Adiatou) and Marietou Touré (Fily) were who wonderful in their supporting roles.
Girlhood had its official American premiere at the Sundance Film Festival before playing in New York starting January 30th. American critics have raved about the film, calling out its unique casting of Black actresses in France, but also for Sciamma’s storytelling. We cannot confirm whether it will start to play in other major cities in America, but please do see this film when you get the chance! Whether you lived a fast life as a teenager or not, it’s a beautiful to be girl, but it doesn’t mean it’s always easy.