A refreshingly femme-centric look at the struggles of women in contempo Egypt, “Girls” reps a strong burst of energy from not just helmer Amr Bayoumi but also dancer-turned-star Reem Hegab. Tale of four rural maidens striving to make it in the big city places the need to overcome crushing societal expectations front and center. While the characters don’t all get brass rings, Bayoumi and critic-turned-scripter Ola el-Shafei refuse to punish them for choices often condemned in more conservative pics from the Muslim world. Fests looking for Arab fare would do well to come calling.
Bayoumi isn’t the only Egyptian making films about strong women — others include Inas al-Degheidy and Hala Khalil — but he’s got a feel for balancing traditional tropes with envelope-pushing topics such as premarital sex and abortion without making them seem lurid. And at a time when more and more women are taking the veil, even in the industry, it’s a bold film that shows one tossing it off, never to be worn again.
Four young women from various parts of rural Egypt room together at a Cairo university. Opening narration has them briefly describe childhoods filled with insecurities and the sense that even the slightest moral infraction would bring shame on the entire family. All that is seemingly behind them as they celebrate graduation and the beginning of a new life in the big city.
Bedouin Farah (Hegab) is the ebullient one, so enraptured by the possibilities before her that she practically bounces with each step. Nihal (Somayi Jouini) is the intellectual one, scandalized by Farah’s newfound flirtatiousness but herself the secret mistress of a much older man. A severe case of acne prevents Heba (Farah Youssef) from feeling at ease with the opposite sex, while Salma (Farida) learns the hard way that nice girls don’t always get their men.
Script doesn’t shy away from “Back Street” stereotypes of the Fannie Hurst school, but neither does it keep the women locked into the roles of helpless victims. Yearning to find a place in the urban fabric — pic uses repeated shots of Cairo’s clogged arteries flowing with lights and vehicles — the four friends discover their expectations are as false as those invented for them by suspicious families and jeering men.
Farah’s abortion may be punishment of sorts for her affair with a married man, but her “infraction” doesn’t prevent her from winding up the most fulfilled of the bunch. Not all characters are so successful. Heba’s sad-sack mien and ridiculously overdone pimples play like a ’50s novel for adolescent girls, and Nihal’s rigid, hypocritical prissiness lacks dimension.
But the four women have a marvelous sense of solidarity and playfulness together. As Farah, Hegab steals the show, leaping off the screen in a star-making performance.
Lensing is smooth and confident, especially in the way helmer Bayoumi brings Cairo itself in as an additional character, a symbol of opportunity as well as anonymity and loneliness.