French director Céline Sciamma wants to show us a spirited and insightful look at what it means to grow as a girl. This is more than the usual hollywood trappings. Sciamma isn’t interested in stereotypes or the usual melodramatic story beats. She is instead interested in moments. Moments experienced by girls doing what each and every one of us had to do at some point….. “grow up”.
Girlhood follows the story of 16-year-old Marieme (Karidja Touré) growing up in a poor french suburb outside of Paris. Her poor performance means she has not qualified for highschool. She is devastated at what is her immediate future, a trade/vocational school. Her mother works so often that she is hardly around, making Marieme the primary caregiver to her two younger sisters. Her older brother strikes fear into all three of them. Having taken the place of their absentee father, he is an abusive force they try their best to avoid. Marieme feels like her future is outside of her control, she doesn’t want much, just the right to choose.
It is at this low point that Marieme befriends a gang of girls. Sporting stylish clothes and long weaves, their style and attitude is much different from her own. The three girls, Lady (Assa Sylla), Adiatou (Lindsay Karamoh), and Fily (Mariétou Touré) aren’t necessarily a source of positive influence. They intimidate other students, shop lift and get into trash talking sessions with other girls. Their lifestyle reflects the sense of freedom that Marieme desperately wants. They invite her into their crew, to be a part of something she doesn’t need to fear or report to. They aren’t just there to steer her into a path of debauchery.. they know that strength comes in numbers. The gang is a support system and no matter the activity, the connection and bonds they share with each-other are potent and honest.
Sciamma does some really powerful shooting with this film. Its energy is extra potent and intense from the very beginning. The film opens with a slow-motion female football game. The scene is ripe with symbolism as the girls on the field represent freedom. On the field they are unbound by society, they can run, jump and attack at will. This imagery is immediately pressed into the ground as this strong and free pack of young girls walk home. The closer they get home, the more young boys and men they walk pass, the more recluse and reserved they become. Even though the film has this serious tone, it never feels weighed down by it. Sciamma provides us a view that is as uncompromising as it is powerful.
The film is held high by a brilliant performance by Karidja Touré. She is captivating in each scene she is in. How she bravely takes on actions and choices, especially so because you always get the sense that she doesn’t know how it will turn out. The remaining young actresses filling out the gang’s quartet is equally as compelling. Though the gang as a whole might be labeled as troublemakers, they are the walking embodiment of what friendship is, illustrating the protection/comfort it provides. They are figuring out who they are at the same time she is. Their actions aren’t really fueled by a desire to be troublesome as it is a desire to feel free and relevant. They follow the image of what they want and think they deserve to be. This is highlighted with an amazing scene when the girls spend the night together imagining a night on the town in a hotel room.
Girlhood struggles to maintain its energy throughout, but this also feels intentional. It isn’t Sciamma’s goal to give us a roller coaster of anything. True life has its ups and downs, and the girls just do their best to navigate from one scenario to another. They will love , they will clash, and they will forgive. It almost feels circular at times, but ultimately… that’s the exact spirit girlhood looks for. It’s a fresh take on the coming of age story that we all think we’ve seen a few times over. You haven’t seen something like girlhood before.