Why you should care

This French film captures a universal poignancy and sense of danger at the cusp of adulthood.

There’s a scene in French director Celine Sciamma’s coming-of-age story Girlhood that captures the beauty and innocence of teenage girls trying to navigate the difficulties of life, with only each other to turn to for protection. We see 16-year-old Marieme and her new trio of friends hanging out in a hotel room, smoking marijuana and sipping on rum and Coke while wearing dresses they recently stole from a local store — complete with theft-prevention tags still attached. Like any gathering of young girls might, they act out Rihanna’s 2012 single “Diamonds” as a mesmerizing blue hue fills the room, giving it a dreamy ambiance. In this four-minute performance by the dolled-up teens, Sciamma shows that, regardless of how tough these girls act, they are still just that: young girls.

Elsewhere in the film, the girls’ defensive mechanisms and hardened exteriors are on display, but the audience has also seen them as naïve and playful children who, in the comfort of one another, let their guards down often. Girlhood avoids judgment, allowing the viewer to witness innocence juxtaposed against the harsh realities of poverty and adolescence. Nuanced performances straddle the fine line between leaping into adulthood and falling into the irresponsible abyss of teenage angst. Sciamma chronicles the seemingly unbreakable bond between these young girls, while acknowledging just how much growing up they still have to do.

The film stars Karidja Toure as Marieme, a shy and timid 16-year-old who struggles at home with a nonexistent mother, a preteen sister who admires her and an oppressively violent brother; and at school, where her grades suffer and she’s denied advancement. Feeling held back by her surroundings in the projects of northwest Paris, Marieme slides into the care and protection of a trio of hardened young ladies who quickly teach her to toughen up and attack life’s challenges before they attack her. Marieme — under the guise of “Vic,” as in victory — joins her substitute family of troublemaking girls: Lady (Assa Sylla), Fily (Marietou Toure) and Adiatou (Lindsay Karamoh). With her newfound freedom, Marieme discovers more strength than she ever imagined she had — and that the real world brings more challenges than she ever expected.

This coming-of-age tale avoids cliché territory: Marieme’s quest through girlhood doesn’t end with her rectifying all her mistakes by the time the credits roll. She stumbles through her decisions and the consequences that follow: Should she sleep with the boy who finally pays attention to her newfound persona? Is she responsible for the way her behavior affects those who look up to her? Toure is brilliant as Marieme, alongside her fellow formidable actresses, all capturing adolescence in its natural state. They’ll fight the baddest girl on the block, but they’ll also cry over losing a game of miniature golf.

While this is the story of young black girls in France, you can strip away the color and country and find a core that is reflective of universal teenage girlhood: the challenges of burgeoning femininity, boys and, ultimately, growing up to become women. Like Sciamma’s previous films Water Lilies and Tomboy, Girlhood finds its meaning in daily struggles, and the beauty in diamonds not yet fully polished.

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