In her aces debut feature “Divines”, Houda Benyamina has what ought to be a career-making film on her hands. With a story developed by its director and screenwriters Romain Compingt and Malik Rumeau for three years, the hard work has paid off, resulting in a funny, often suspenseful and always emotionally involving drama about Dounia (Oulaya Amamra), a tough but naive teenager who sees getting rich or dying trying as her most viable option. Her slightly more cautious friend Maimouna (newcomer Déborah Lukumuena) is less immediately willing to embrace thug life, but easily swept along for the ride. The obvious comparison artistically and in terms of commercial prospects is to Celine Sciamma’s “Girlhood,” which, like “Divines,” was unveiled in Directors’ Fortnight at Cannes.
“Divines” depends a great deal on the quality of its lead actor. Sight unseen, the knowledge that the director has cast her sister in the lead role might be cause for concern: After all, keeping it in the family has not always led to the prettiest results in cinema’s history. Within minutes, any such concerns have been laid entirely to rest. Amamra is a knockout as Dounia — by turns sewer-rat tough and heartbreakingly vulnerable, it’s a performance that should lead to further principal roles.
Like most teenagers, Dounia plays with identities. We first see her peering into a mosque at her BFF, texting her and urging her to come play. She’s dressed in streetwear, makeup-free and with her long, curly hair tied back, ready to get into trouble. Later in the film, we see her in traditionally modest Islamic garb, her hair and body shape hidden — yet as it turns out, she and Maimouna are using their voluminous outfits to hide shoplifted goods in a supermarket. The pair run away from suspicious security guards, laughing — a perfect image of subversion. Later, Dounia uses feminine costuming of a different sort — typical Western clubwear — to attempt a higher-stakes heist. “Police never stop a woman in high heels,” theorizes gang leader Rebecca (Jisca Kalvanda).
“Divines” is not a one-woman show. Amamra has the heftier role, but Lukumuena matches her energy, employing superb natural comic timing as the gigglier half of the dynamic duo. Kalvanda is likewise fearsomely hard-nosed as feared small-time local crook Rebecca.
The girls’ first introduction to Rebecca makes use of an attractive white blond man with a toned torso, dressed only in underwear, occupying the same traditional symbolic space that conventionally attractive women often do in music videos. In other words, he is a trophy, a shorthand indicator of status, employed solely for his physical talents. For the younger girls, this upended power dynamic is, along with the money, part of the lifestyle to which they aspire.
This kind of gently ironic gender role-reversal occurs throughout the film, with a meet-cute between Dounia and dancer Djigui (Kévin Mischel) bristling with tension as she daringly saves him from serious and probably life-altering physical injury. He’s only in danger in the first place, however, because she goads him into pursuing her through the rafters of a theater. Not that the film excuses such hierarchies of identity as long as they’re inverted and we all get a chance to be top dog. Rather, there is a pointed sense of what a limiting dead end such hierarchies ultimately constitute: a red herring whereby those who possess real power are able to rest comfortably, as long as the disenfranchised continue to scratch each other’s eyes out somewhere that won’t affect the more privileged.
“Divines” also recognizes that there is nothing compelling about the message Dounia and other girls hear loud and clear at school: Keep your head down, behave, work hard, and maybe, just maybe, you’ll one day be lucky enough to secure a poorly paid admin job. This is insightfully played out in a classroom scene that begins with Dounia impishly disrupting a careers workshop roleplay game out of mere boredom, and ends with her hitting a genuine nerve: She impulsively audits the hours her teacher must work to earn a pittance, communicating in the process exactly why her role models are those who get around the system, not those who acquiesce to it.
The first hour of the film boasts a level of accomplishment that, unsurprisingly, it can’t quite sustain throughout. There are a couple of good-in-theory decisions that don’t really fly — not least an iffy scene featuring rapid cutting between a physical assault and a modern dance recital, which is very much the kind of energetic and passionate choice that first films tend to be prone to. As such, it’s a testament to Benyamina’s arrival as a fully-formed voice that there aren’t more of these sort of minor freshman flourishes to get past.
At an edition of the festival heavy on female-driven narratives, that has seen stars including Geena Davis and Susan Sarandon weigh in on the perennial chestnut of women in film, “Divines” doesn’t display the same level of practiced Hollywood sheen as, say, “Thelma and Louise”. Yet there’s something in its DNA that makes it a modern cousin to that punch-the-air odyssey of female friendship pitted against the unfavourable odds offered by a house that always wins. There’s even a scene in “Divines” where Dounia and Maimouna mime an imagined escape from their quotidian existence in a Ferrari, offering a fantasy hunk a ride and drinking champagne behind the wheel. Sound design and Julien Poupard’s empathetic, restless camera collude in their imagined world until we almost feel we can see the girls’ high-end sports car.
The film’s commercial prospects ought to be at least the equal of “Girlhood”; possible prizes at Cannes or elsewhere on the festival circuit would help to cement this. For English-speaking territories, the subtitles represent the greatest distribution challenge. Leaving the language barrier aside, the accessible story is communicated clearly and briskly, with plenty of vivid, unambiguous character work; its pert challenges to dominant conventions lie in the realm of representation, not narrative or patience. At home, it deserves to be a hit.