French Girls in the hood in Girlhood (my review)

B+ Coming of age drama

  • Written and directed by Céline Sciamma

When we first meet Marieme (Karidja Touré), she’s part of a school all-girl football team. Soon afterwards, an unseen counselor tells her that her grades aren’t good enough to get her into high school. (Apparently high school has requirements in France.) she’s failed the same year twice , and the counselor thinks that a vocational school would be better for her.

Marieme goes through many other joyful and wrenching experiences over the course of the film. Only 16 years old, her options in life are horrifically limited. She tests these options, and finds acceptance and community only young women who rob, steal, and fight. She lacks the maturity to see this as a dead-end lifestyle. Although Girlhood has many scenes of love, affection, and real happiness, the overall effect is deeply disturbing.

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Don’t let the title fool you. This French drama has nothing to do with last year’s indie hit, Boyhood. It’s not set in Texas and it wasn’t shot over a period of 12 years. The original title is Bande de filles. When I asked UC linguistics professor Eve E. Sweetser for a translation, she suggested "Band/troop/gang of girls," pointing out that "Bande doesn’t mean musical band (or dance troupe), but would cover, for example, robber bands?" I’m guessing that Strand Releasing renamed the film Girlhood so that people would associate it with Richard Linklater’s work.

Considering Marieme’s family situation, it’s no surprise she’s doing badly. Her mother works long hours and is rarely home. There’s no mention of a father. Her older brother, apparently a gang member, is often abusive and violent. She takes on much of the responsibility of raising her two younger sisters, whom she clearly loves.

The neighborhood she lives in–within commuting distance from Paris–looks like what we in America call the "projects." Everything is ugly, and drugs and crime are everywhere.

So Marieme joins up with three girls whose lives seem far more exciting than hers. They wear cool clothing. They strut with confidence. They rent a nice hotel room and party through the night. They fight with other girls. They take what they want, often with the threat of violence. Marieme, now calling herself Vic, starts carrying a switchblade.

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And yet, she’s still a very loving person. You see it in the way she cares for her sisters, and also with her new-found friends. They’re all cheering each other down a very bad road, but the love and concern they have for each other is deep and genuine.

Vic also finds another kind of love in her romance with Ismaël (Idrissa Diabaté). He clearly adores her, and the two are very sweet together. Nothing in the film suggests that he’s anything other than a decent young man.

Writer/Director Céline Sciamma (Water Lilies–another worthwhile look at adolescence) tells the story with an unblinking but sympathetic eye. She examines the various micro-communities that Marieme/Vic wanders through, finds the parts that make them attractive, and shows decent people in all of them. But she also lets us see the rot beneath both them and the overall society that makes them possible.

I would have very much liked to have seen Marieme find a happy place in the world, but Girlhood isn’t a fairy tale. It is, however, very much worth seeing.

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