Teen girls learn the language of love and violence

Girlhood (M). Director: Céline Sciamma. Starring: Karidja Touré, Assa Sylla, Simina Soumaré. 113 minutes

In a scene that sums up much of what is good about this French drama, protagonist, Marieme (Touré), a poor French-African teenager, and three new friends have stolen some money and booked themselves a room in a hotel, where they spend the night drinking and dressing up in stylish (stolen) dresses.

As the night progresses the group's leader, Lady (Sylla), begins lip-syncing to the pop singer Rihanna's song 'Diamonds', with its stirring chorus 'We're beautiful like diamonds in the sky'. One by one the other girls, Lady's erstwhile audience, stand to join her — Marieme, the newcomer to the group, last of all.

It's a simple moment of adolescent silliness that, as it proceeds, swells with meaning and poignancy. Not only because of the sense of love and intimacy that seems visibly to be forged and reinforced during this act of uninhibited joy shared by new and old friends, although certainly that is a big part of it.

It is a window, too, to other layers of the characters' existence. The theft of money and clothes suggests a desire to access a glamorous world that their socioeconomic reality has denied them. But the song, sung by them with a supplicatory fervour, speaks to a desire for a deeper beauty, beyond the material.

The film follows Marieme's experiences as she drops out of school and is taken in by a girl gang, who open to her new possibilities of loyalty and love, and harshness. It transcends many other entries in the coming-of-age drama genre, its minimalist aesthetic belying a thematic and empathetic richness.

Despite the similarities between the titles it ought not be thought of as a gender-shifted response to American filmmaker Richard Linklater's Boyhood. Sciamma's original French title is Bande de Filles, 'girl gang', which evokes a specific exploration of class that was not a primary concern for Linklater.

The characters, all black and poor, inhabit a world where violence is ever-present, as an expression both of material want and of dignity. A very early scene sees Marieme and the fellow members of her all-girls soccer team walking home after dark, among the feet of the high-rise flats where they live.

The girls are garrulous. But in the shadows of the flats, male voices utter vaguely threatening suggestive remarks. The chatter dissipates to silence as the group dwindles to pairs, then individuals. It's a quietly harrowing picture of women's too-frequently justified fear of violence from men.

But the girls, too, are fluent in violence. Many of the encounters between Marieme, Lady and co. and other gangs are marked by verbal or physical aggression. It is senseless, perhaps necessary territorial grandstanding, but it is also an assertion of 'us' and of self-empowerment. It is inherently dignified.

If this sounds like the film is voyeuristic or peddling stereotypes, it is not. Writer-director Sciamma, a white woman and accomplished filmmaker, brings layers of human insight to the film's portrayal of these young women and their friendships. Grimness is tempered by great sensitivity and nuance.

It draws power, especially, from deceptively simple moments. One night Marieme climbs into bed, throwing a hand back over her head; it is spontaneously clasped by her younger sister, Bébé (Soumaré), her confidante and ally against an abusive older brother.

There is much beauty to be found in such moments.

Tim KroenertTim Kroenert is assistant editor of Eureka Street.

Topic tags: Girlhood, Céline Sciamma, Karidja Touré, Assa Sylla, Simina Soumaré, France, Tim Kroenert



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