Girlhood, Directed by Celine Sciamma
Girlhood (named Bande de Filles in France) is the story of 16 year old school girl Marieme (played by Karidja Touré).
Growing up on in a concrete estate in the Banlieues outside of Paris, Marieme’s home is a single parent household. Her mother barely features in the film as she is always working. The only present authority figure is an abusive and controlling older brother and Marieme has the added responsibility of being caregiver and protector of her two younger sisters, so it’s no surprise that she is unable to achieve the grades she needs to continue her education through to high school.
When Marieme is informed by her teacher that her only choice is to take a vocational course – inevitably leading to a dead end job – she asks if she can retake the year and her teacher replies “it’s too late”. Marieme pleads: “it’s not my fault” but the teacher’s mind is made up. Defeated and angry she runs out of school and is immediately spotted by a girl gang who invite her to join them on a trip to Paris. At first she is apprehensive and intimidated by the girls, but when a group of boys (including her love interest) walk by and the two groups casually greet each other as equals – she wants in.
Association with the girls give Marieme a new sense of power, as a group they are fearless.
Overnight we see her transform from a shy and quiet schoolgirl into a confident young woman. She swaps her braids for a weave, her hoodies for a leather jacket and completely ditches school for a life of bullying, stealing and fighting with the girls. Suddenly she has a new mobile phone, clothes, parties and a boyfriend and seems to be having fun at last, but it can’t last forever.
As the story develops she is confronted by the alternative paths her life can take: a job cleaning offices with her mother, marrying to become a housewife and a mother or making a serious career out of crime working for a notorious drug dealer.
Despite the bleakness of the story line, Girlhood is an unexpectedly uplifting coming of age film.
Rather than focussing on the negative aspects of gang life Sciamma chooses to explore the bond between the girls, the power and confidence that they develop in their tight-knit group and how they support each other through their shared difficulties. Refreshingly, they don’t compete for power, or sell each other out or dramatically realise the consequences of their actions, there is no ‘moral of the story’.
One of the highlights of the film is a euphoric music sequence where we see the four girls in shoplifted dresses, dancing to Rihanna in a hotel room paid for by their collective earnings from petty crime. What is beautiful about this scene is that although they get glamourously dressed and made up, instead of going out to a club and parading in front of boys they stay in the room, just the four of them enjoying each other’s company. In spite of the hard edge they have formed as a defence against the rest of the world all they really want to do is just enjoy being care-free teenage girls, even if it’s only for one night.
In Girlhood there is a lot of reference to the fact that on top of the inequalities they suffer due to their race and socioeconomic status the girls do not achieve the same level of respect in their community as the boys and the inequality gets worse as they come of age. In one of the early scenes Marieme advises her younger sister to hide her developing breasts for as long as she can and when Marieme sleeps with her boyfriend she is beaten and branded a slut.
It is interesting then, to learn that most of the casted males were actors who had been to drama school and had professional experience, while there was a profound shortage of trained female actresses available. Due to a lack of black actresses in French drama schools, Director Céline Sciamma cast most of the roles with actors she spotted in the street, who had no professional experience before making the film.
The result is an incredibly true to life performance with universal appeal as it has moments that will remind everyone of their teenage years.
While the film has received some criticism (for the fact that’s director is a middle class white woman or that the film gives a negative perspective on the lives of young black women ) the overall response to the film has been very positive and this is reflected in both it’s critical acclaim – being nominated for several awards and it’s box office success, the film was originally released last year in France and has gone on to gain international release.