Eleven-year-old Senegalese immigrant Amy (Fathia Youssouf) reckons there are two ways to be a woman. Amy could mimic her mom (Maïmouna Gueye), a dutiful drudge with three kids and a husband who’s just announced he’s bringing home a second wife. Or she could copy the “Cuties,” a quartet of brazen girls who wear tube tops to class, screech “Freedom!” in the hallways, and rehearse their dance crew after school. Either way, the new-in-town 6th grader is ready to select a lane and speed toward maturity.
To writer-director Maïmouna Doucouré, the choice is simple. Her coming-of-age drama starts with Amy doodling stick figures and climaxes with the kid booty-shaking in hot pants. The choice is also false, but Doucouré believes that today’s girls see their options in black and white. “Cuties'” job is to coil the contrasting messages and spin them until her lead falls down dizzy, which can make the film feel as subtle as a headache. (Two paragraphs into this review, and you, dear reader, can guess that the big wedding and the big dance competition happen on the same day!)
“Cuties” is an extension of Doucouré’s 2016 César- and Sundance-winning short “Maman(s)”, about an 8-year-old child furious when her polygamous dad invites his new bride into their Parisian apartment. (The two movies share the same powerful shot of the mother weeping when she thinks she’s alone, not realizing her daughter is hidden under the bed and staring at her ankles.) The betrayal — a word Amy and her mother never use, but the emotion Doucouré clearly feels — happened to Doucouré herself, she’s still tapped into her youthful resentment, shame and proto-feminist fury. Amy never explains the root of why she’s acting out, not even when her domineering Aunty attempts to disinfect her soul with a Muslim spiritual ritual. But Doucouré remembers.
Aging her lead character three years allows the first-time feature director to explore the contradictions of being 11, an age just old enough that you want to be older, yet so young that “older” means pretending to be 14. Amy’s worldly new friends don’t yet know how much they don’t know. Not only does Coumba (Esther Gohourou), the loudest flirt, mistake a condom for a balloon, after she blows it up, the other girls panic that she’s probably going to die. (In the movie’s funniest gag, they frantically scrub Coumba’s mouth with soap.) To be 11 means attempting to simultaneously prove you’re a kid and a grownup, and failing at both. When the gang sneaks into a laser-tag playroom, they try to intimidate the security guard by accusing him of pedophilia, and cap off their attack with the dizzying threat, “We’re children. We’ll call our lawyers!”
Ironically, the movie could use more consequences. Amy tiptoes around her home like her Aunty’s temper is made of lava. Yet, when she screws up, say, by letting Angelica, the Cuties’ ringleader, kick open her second mother’s bedroom door and jump on the tacky rosette blanket, Amy cowers in fear … and nothing bad ever happens. There’s a few too many fake-outs to invest in the film’s stakes, even as Amy’s antics get increasingly egregious. The problem might be that Doucouré is too aware that an 11-year-old has no sense of perspective. A bungled video chat with a cute boy is given more emotional weight than near-manslaughter.
Still, Amy’s most corrosive influence isn’t Angelica, who irons her hair in the laundry room and rules over the girls with a glittered fist. It’s a smartphone Amy steals that allows her to watch stripper videos underneath her headscarf during afternoon prayers. She’s too naive to know that slapping asses isn’t just adult, it’s Adult. Later, she poaches the moves for the Cuties’ big show, setting up a performance that outdoes “Little Miss Sunshine” in sexualized, awkward audacity. (Doucouré would rather get gasps than laughs.)
Newcomer Youssouf has an anchoring presence. Occasionally, Doucouré lets her light up the screen with a smile, and at the director’s most expressionistic, the girl floats. Yann Maritaud’s cinematography is rich with jewel tones, especially in a blue and red beaded dress made for Amy to wear to her father’s wedding. In “Cuties'” most poetic shot, a gust of wind blows into the closet and the gown’s chest heaves as though it’s been aching for an obedient little girl to give it life.
It’s in those moments that Doucouré offers a glimpse of the director she might become when she trusts audiences to understand her themes without heavy underlining. Till then, the image that lingers is Amy gyrating as her Aunty exorcises her with splashes of cold water. The flailing girl looks like she’s suffering — and she also looks like she’s twerking. She’s acting the sinner, and she’s practicing her sin. Her two frauds have converged.