Céline Sciamma’s third directorial feature, Girlhood, offers something hitherto rarely featured: a depiction of the lives of those who are largely ignored by the rest of society. Sciamma’s film focuses on the lives of several black teenagers, a narrative preoccupation which Sciamma states is generally underdeveloped in French cinema (importantly Sciamma notes that her position, as a white woman, entails some problematic issues of privilege).
Marieme (Karidja Touré) lives in a large housing development near to Paris. Her evenings, once she returns home from school, involve ensuring that her two younger sisters are fed and looked after whilst avoiding her physically domineering older brother. Her mother works all day and night cleaning, and is absent both physically and mentally, quietly praising Marieme’s assertion that she is going to go to high school, without any real conviction. Marieme is not, as she has been told, going to high school. Her grades are too low and she has already repeated the school year once before. As a result, she is instructed to look into vocational courses with the aim being a smooth and easy transition into the work place. Marieme protests, but is unable, or unwilling, to explain her circumstances at home, likely aware of how normal her circumstance is for the girls like her at the housing development.
Leaving the meeting after refusing to engage with this distasteful prospect, she attracts the attention of Lady (Assa Sylla), the leader of a gang of three girls, who spend their time engaging in petty crime and occasional physical fights with other girls as a means to assert their dominance. It is quickly apparent that it is utterly crucial for these young girls to posit themselves as authoritarian given the proliferation of men on the estate. Marieme embarks on a true and genuine friendship with these girls, and begins to declare her independence and her own sense of identity.
Sciamma makes it clear from the very outset of her film, the potential dangers of being female in a patriarchal society. The opening scene features a band of exuberant girls playing American football. They emerge from their training excited, loud and are clearly invested with a sense of power that they have gained through their interactions both with the game and each other. As the girls get closer to home, the volume drops and the girls retreat into themselves. As increasing numbers of girls peel away from the rest of the group in order to return to their individual homes, it is clear that these girls are being forced back into their roles. Roles, that are likely to be similar to the role awarded Marieme: housekeeper and stand in mother at the age of sixteen.
Aside from Sciamma’s narrative focus, it is the refreshing approach to both her subject matter and her characters that helps to make Girlhood so wonderful. A clichéd, and rather tired approach to the burgeoning friendship between the girls would be to have them tricking or beguiling Marieme in some way, with a malicious ulterior motive. Instead, the girls’ interest in Marieme is nothing but heartfelt and it is their friendship that is integral to Marieme’s development.
Similarly, Sciamma’s decision to feature an extended scene in which Marieme and her friends dance to Rhianna’s ‘Diamonds’ is rather sublime. The scene, in which the girls drink, and laughing wearing a selection of stolen clothes is beautifully poignant. The girls have spent hours dressing up, and it could be initially assumed that they are doing so to attract boys, instead, the girls have spent their time dressing up for both themselves and one another. They are autonomous and are keenly aware of how precarious this position can be. Dancing with one another, it is clear that they are young girls on the precipice of adulthood. It is interesting to note that Sciamma shot the scene with the song before gaining permission, clearly selecting the song specifically. Watching the scene, it is obvious that no other song would so wonderfully signify Marieme’s desire to be something more than her current situation allows.
Featuring utterly captivating and entirely naturalistic performances from the cast, many of whom are new to acting, the narrative is overtly political but in a rather subtle way. Sciamma intelligently balances issues of race, gender and class and integrates them into the narrative. Her script is sparse, allowing moments to linger, ensuring that they stay with the audience long after the film has finished.