×

Cannes Film Review: ‘Girlhood’

'Tomboy' director Celine Sciamma nonjudgmentally examines another young woman searching for her identity, this time amid a teenage girl gang.

With:
Karidja Toure, Assa Sylla, Lindsay Karamoh, Marietou Toure, Idrissa Diabate, Simina Soumare, Cyril Mendy, Djibril Gueye.

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.

Popular on Variety

Cannes Film Review: 'Girlhood'

Reviewed at Cannes Film Festival (Directors' Fortnight, opener), May 14, 2014.  Running time: 113 MIN.

Production: (France) A Pyramide release of a Hold Up Films, Lilies Film production, in association with Arte France Cinema, with the participation of the CNC, with the support of the Foods Images de la diversity, Agence National Pour la Cohesion Social et l'Egalite des Chances (ACSE), with the participation of Canal Plus, Arte France, Cine Plus, in association with Arte/Cofinova9. (International sales: Films Distribution, Paris.) Produced by Benedicte Couvreur.

Crew: Directed, written by Celine Sciamma. Dialogue, Roselyne Bellec. Camera (color), Christel Baras; editor, Julien Lacheray; music, Para One; production designer, Thomas Grezaud; sound, Pierre Andre, Daniel Sobrino; assistant director, Delphine Daull; casting, Christel Baras.

With: Karidja Toure, Assa Sylla, Lindsay Karamoh, Marietou Toure, Idrissa Diabate, Simina Soumare, Cyril Mendy, Djibril Gueye.

More Film

  • David Goodman

    WGA West's David Goodman on Agency Strategy: 'We'll Start Meeting as Soon as Possible'

    David Goodman, who was resoundingly re-elected president of the Writers Guild of America West on Monday, said the guild plans to meet with several talent agencies soon in an effort to ease the impasse over packaging fees and affiliated production. “Many agencies had indicated that they wanted to wait to see the results of the [...]

  • Australian Outback

    Legend Media Seeks Trio of West Australia-China Co-Productions (EXCLUSIVE)

    Perth, Australia-based production company Legend Media is preparing a slate of three feature films to be produced with partners in China. The company styles itself as one that recognizes the opportunities for Asian engagement that have fallen to Australia, through geography, trade and culture. The company aims to make use of the bilateral film co-production [...]

  • David Goodman

    David Goodman Re-Elected President of Writers Guild of America West

    David Goodman has been convincingly re-elected to a two-year term as president of the Writers Guild of America West, beating Phyllis Nagy in a bitter contest that became a referendum on the guild’s ongoing battle with talent agents. Goodman received 4,395 votes to Nagy’s 1,282 in an election that yielded record turnout among the WGA [...]

  • Issa Rae Portrait

    Issa Rae Developing Re-Imagining of Crime Thriller 'Set It Off'

    “Insecure” star and co-creator Issa Rae is in early development on a re-imagining of New Line’s crime thriller “Set If Off,” which starred Jada Pinkett Smith, Queen Latifah, Vivica Fox and Kimberly Elise. Rae will produce with plans to star in the project. Syreeta Singleton and Nina Gloster have been hired to pen the script. [...]

  • Thomas Golubic GMS Conference

    Guild of Music Supervisors President: 'The Economics of the Job Don't Work Anymore'

    The Guild of Music Supervisors (GMS) hosted its 5th annual “State of Music in Media” conference on Saturday, Sept. 15, at the Los Angeles Film School. Featuring a wide array of panel discussions on all manner of issues related to music in film, television and advertising, the confab drew top composers, music supervisors, licensing and [...]

  • Gay Chorus Deep South

    Film News Roundup: Documentary 'Gay Chorus Deep South' Bought for Awards Season Release

    In today’s film news roundup, the documentaries “Gay Chorus Deep South” and “Tread” find homes, Tobin Bell’s latest horror film completes production and Emilio Insolera joins “355.” ACQUISITIONS MTV Documentary Films has acquired “Gay Chorus Deep South” for release during the fall for awards season consideration. Directed by David Charles Rodrigues, the film world premiered [...]

  • Bad Education

    What 'Bad Education' Taught Us About the Slow Toronto Film Festival Market

    “Bad Education,” a dramedy starring Hugh Jackman as the embezzling superintendent of district of schools in Long Island, N.Y., was set to be this year’s “I, Tonya.” The movie has the same biting tone, shifting between comedy and tragedy. It received strong reviews out of the Toronto Film Festival. And like “I, Tonya,” it even [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content