An engrossing look at the way a young woman of color defines her own identity vis-a-vis the various spheres of support in her life — family, school, friends and so forth — Celine Sciamma’s “Girlhood” advances the French helmer’s obsession with how society attempts to force teenage girls into familiar categories, when the individuals themselves don’t conform so easily. As in “Water Lilies” and “Tomboy” before this, Sciamma pushes past superficial anthropological study to deliver a vital, nonjudgmental character study, this time following 16-year-old Marieme as she seeks her path amid a “girl gang” (a better translation of the French title, “Bande de filles”).
Coincidentally, under its English-language title, “Girlhood” suggests a certain kinship with Richard Linklater’s “Boyhood,” another sensitively observed coming-of-age feature making the festival rounds this year. Though Sciamma’s film speaks to roughly the same audience, the writer-director doesn’t set out to capture the cumulative experience of a prototypical adolescent the way Linklater did. Rather, she resolves to consider the inner lives of characters typically overlooked in French film — namely, the black teens who congregate in shopping centers, subways and courtyards, drawing attention as they “kiki” among themselves.
Clearly divided into four distinct sections, “Girlhood” illustrates the circumstances leading up to several major turning points for Marieme, who lives in the projects in northwest Paris and desperately wants to sort out her adult persona. At the end of each, the screen cuts to black, electro music (by “Water Lilies” composer Para One) swells and the character re-emerges with an entirely new identity: braided hair as a student, a straightened weave to match her fellow dropouts, a kinky blonde wig when running errands for a local crime boss, and finally, “herself” in the final segment.
From the very first scene, which shows an all-girl sports team participating in a school-sanctioned football match, “Girlhood” depicts Marieme (Karidja Toure) surrounded by other young women. Whereas Sciamma’s last two films challenged sexual taboos by acknowledging LGBT themes among underage characters, in this case, race is a more powerful factor than attraction (which, when it does arise, is complicated by the fact that Marieme desires one of her abusive older brother’s best friends, played by Idrissa Diabate). Tall and yet still quite youthful-looking, Toure appears in every scene, giving auds plenty of time to psychoanalyze her character. By the end, it’s clear that she is simply most comfortable being part of a social group — which explains the significance of the last shot, in which the character is finally shown to be independent enough to branch out on her own.
For any reluctant-to-integrate culture, a pack of non-white youths can be a very threatening thing, whether the group in question is predominately male or female. Sciamma doesn’t shy away from the volatile, potentially dangerous energy found in such gangs, though she certainly isn’t exploiting that dynamic, either. Instead, the writer-director makes every effort to show how and why these support clusters come together, recognizing them as substitute families of a kind.
As a result, “Girlhood” is the rare gang-related film to avoid the cautionary cliches of the genre: Though the film features two intense catfights and shows Marieme hustling other girls outside school, it hardly glorifies these moments, lingering to reveal the sense of disgust on Marieme’s face after she rips off a younger student. And yet, in the film’s most electrifying sequence, Marieme and her new girlfriends (led by equally strong newcomer Assa Sylla, playing leader-of-the-pack Lady) take these earnings and rent a hotel room, slipping into shoplifted dresses and dancing away their concerns to Rihanna’s “Diamonds.” If only these insecure characters could sense how much we care.