A Review of Céline Sciamma’s Girlhood: An Honest and Emotionally Powerful Take on the Coming-of-Age Genre

girlhood movie review

Film: Girlhood (original title: Bande de Filles)
Director: Céline Sciamma
Primary Cast: Karidja Touré, Assa Sylla, Lindsay Karamoh, Mariétou Touré, Idrissa Diabaté
US Release Date: 30 January 2015 (limited)

The following review was originally published by Side B Magazine and can be found on their blog, here. 

Written and directed by Céline Sciamma, Girlhood (original title: Bande de Filles) is a French-language film that was released on a limited basis in the US back in January and that recently found its way to Netflix.

Set in the projects of Paris, the film focuses on 16-year-old Marieme (Karidja Touré), who is a mother to her younger sisters, whose older brother is controlling and abusive, and whose grades aren’t good enough to get her to high school. After being told that she will have to attend vocational courses, Marieme encounters an all-girl gang, who happen to have room for a fourth member. At first, Marieme is noticeably shy and somewhat awkward with the other girls—Lady (Assa Sylla), Adiatou (Lindsay Karamoh), and Fily (Mariétou Touré)—all three of which are much louder and more outgoing than she is. Still, Marieme manages to develop a close and meaningful friendship with the girls rather quickly, and she transforms herself quite a bit as she does so. Along the way, she also has to contend with the burdens of her gender, family, socioeconomic status, and much more. At first glance, such burdens appear far too heavy for someone as young as she is and who is at such a pivotal point in her life to handle, but Marieme—like so many other girls—must figure out how to live in spite of them.

Girlhood is a rare film that manages to feel refreshing, insightful, and new in an effortless, and incredibly genuine manner. While it is hardly the first film to focus on young people growing up and trying to figure out who they are, it never feels clichéd (because it isn’t). The film is tender, delicate, and incredibly powerful. On its surface, it’s beautiful and somewhat unassuming (not unlike Marieme), but at its heart, it’s bold, forceful, and brave (again, not unlike Marieme). Girlhood dares to go where other films don’t, and it does so in an elegant, artful, and heart-wrenching way that never feels shallow or forced.

One of the things that makes Girlhood as entertaining, as touching, and successful as it is is the naturalness of its performances. The entire cast does a fine job, and most of the performances leave one with the sense that there is a remarkable honesty and vulnerability behind them.

The two strongest performances come from Touré and Sylla. As Marieme, Touré is extremely watchable, and she has the sort of on-screen presence that holds viewers tightly in its grasp without ever feeling overwhelming. She brings Sciamma’s script to life in a fully realized and markedly human way, and she navigates Marieme’s various mental and emotional states with the grace and skill of someone with far more films under their belt than she has. Sylla is similarly impressive in the film. As Lady (the confident leader of the gang), she is powerful, she is impossible to look away from, and she manages to convey a great deal with little more than a look.

As good as its performances are, Girlhood’s smart (and somewhat unexpected) script may be even better. On one level, the film is a take on the typical coming-of-age drama—after all, Marieme is a young person trying to find her way from adolescence to something else—but the story it tells isn’t one that most filmgoers will have heard before.

Throughout the film, Marieme is seen trying to figure out who she is and how to live; still, the film is less about “finding one’s self” than it is about what it’s like to be a girl in a world that is not particularly kind to girls. In Girlhood, Sciamma’s aim is not to lead her protagonists to some epiphany or triumph that will guide them successfully through the landscape of adulthood. Rather, she seeks to present an affecting, realistic, and painfully honest picture of life as a girl who is faced with very “adult” problems from a young age and who longs for a sort of freedom that is always slipping from her grasp. Girlhood features girls who desperately want to be free to be themselves, who rarely ever are, and who seldom complain regardless.

Deep down, Girlhood is a film about the friendships between girls and about the experiences they share. As such, it also demonstrates a noticeable interest in the differences between who these girls are when they are together and who they are when they are surrounded by those who hold them back or would seek to control them. Throughout Girlhood, the girls are constantly changing their behavior and their appearances to suit their surroundings—they do so, because that is how they survive. And while the film does feature some moments in which Marieme and the gang are allowed to be themselves without judgement and to feel genuine joy—a scene in which they dance to Rihanna’s “Diamond’s” is particularly memorable—Sciamma also makes it clear that the world around them has no interest at all in just letting them be. That they carry on in spite of this is remarkable, but that they have to do so at all is almost too much to bear.

There is something gentle about Girlhood. It’s tender and delicate. It’s undoubtedly emotional but not in a sensationalized or maudlin way. At the same time, the film is quite dark and is almost unspeakably heavy. The honesty, reality, and emotional vulnerability that pervade the film are beautiful, but they are even more devastating. Girlhood is tragic in the same slow-burning and somewhat unremarkable way that life so often is, and you’d probably have to be pretty heartless not to be moved by the film. There are moments in Girlhood that made me grin from ear to ear (often from the sheer joy of seeing girls being girls without being subjected to the male gaze), but it also moved me to tears.

In addition to being emotionally nuanced and powerfully honest, Girlhood is also subversive. With its mostly female and all-black cast, the film is most certainly a representational anomaly. On top of that, the film dares to portray girls that defy the stereotyped expectations that certain viewers might impose on them. Sure, the gang of girls do shoplift and fight a bit, but what they do, they do for themselves. They aren’t motivated by sex, and they aren’t dangerous criminals either. As intimidating as they may seem to strangers, all the girls are really trying to do is look out for each other. More importantly, these girls are not one-dimensional by any means, and they are more than capable of surviving whatever the world might throw at them on their own.

One place where Girlhood does disappoint a bit is in the pacing of its plot, as the film lags a bit near its end. Lady, Adiatou, and Fily are absent for the film’s final act, and the narrative loses steam without them. While the last section of the film does add further depth to it’s portrayal of Marieme, it does not quite live up to what precedes it.

After watching Girlhood, I feel compelled to urge those who have yet to experience Sciamma’s work to find the time to do so as soon as they can. While the film’s narrative is not without its weaknesses, there is something terribly and beautifully real about Girlhood that should not be ignored. In fact, the sort of sincere, believable, and unassuming emotional quality that runs through the film is something that Sciamma in particular seems to have an incredible knack for; this same quality can be found in her tender and intelligently realized Tomboy, but it’s applied with more sheer force (and perhaps with a little more ambition) in Girlhood.

It is clear that Sciamma is a writer and a director with a perceptive eye for emotional nuance, and her dedication to telling stories about girls is something that today’s film industry most certainly stands to benefit from. Not only does Sciamma present filmgoers with realistic pictures of what it is to be a girl while respecting both the personhood and the depth of her characters, but she also makes it clear that what it means to be a girl can’t be distilled down to a single set of experiences (as elementary as this may sound, it is also a big deal). In Girlhood, Sciamma’s manner of storytelling, her love for her subjects, and her attention to emotional detail all combine to form what amounts to a stunningly memorable and undoubtedly important film.

Until Next Time
Thanks so much for reading (and for putting up with my recent lack of posts). My entire family is moving next week, so things are really hectic for me right now. The current chaos will probably continue to cut into my movie-watching and review-writing time for the next 2 weeks at least. That said, I am actually going to go see Slow West tonight (because why not), so I may post something about that soon.

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