SUNDANCE FILM FESTIVAL 2015
By Don Simpson | January 26, 2015
Director: Céline Sciamma
Writer: Céline Sciamma
Starring: Karidja Touré, Assa Sylla, Lindsay Karamoh, Marietou Touré, Idrissa Diabaté, Simina Soumaré, Dielika Coulibaly, Cyril Mendy, Djibril Gueye, Binta Diop, Chance N’Guessan
Opening with an all-girl [American] football game, Céline Sciamma’s Girlhood showcases the confidence that teenage girls possess whenever boys are not around. Post-game, the girls boisterously walk the dark and menacing streets of their Parisian banlieue défavorisée; but as soon as they reach the courtyard of their public housing development, the sudden silence is audibly jarring. This introduction immediately transports us into the mindset of Marieme (Karidja Touré), a 16-year-old who seems content and self-assumed in the company of other girls, but she shuts down in the presence of males — especially her abusive older brother.
Marieme’s one remaining hope of escaping the inherent trappings of her ethnicity, gender and class is dashed when she is informed that she will not be promoted into high school. Immediately after receiving that news, fate delivers Marieme into the hands of a local female gang. Lady (Assa Sylla), Fily (Marietou Touré) and Adiatou (Lindsay Karamou) are looking for a new recruit, and Marieme is in desperate need of female camaraderie. The three gang members are like hyper-real caricatures representing a temporary escape from Marieme’s grim reality. Gang culture is like a video game for Marieme, the seriousness of the bad girls’ actions does not seem real. Marieme is hypnotized by the cool and carefree nature of Lady, Fily and Adiatou. By the time that the four girls are lip-syncing Rihanna’s “Diamonds” in a hotel room, Marieme has fully entered the fantasy world of her comrades. That moment might be when Marieme feels the most free, but it is not long before she realizes that it is a false sense of freedom; petty thievery will not sustain her for very long.
Girlhood is told in four parts, each of which shows Marieme in a different stage of evolution. Each chapter ends with a cut to black, then Marieme appears in her next phase, showcasing how Marieme adapts to the world by physically and mentally reconstructing herself. The most obvious change is in her hairstyle; her face also mutates from smooth features and a shy, downward gaze to hardened features and a cold, intense stare. Marieme begins to carry herself differently, too, as her body movements grow more forceful and determined. That sweet young girl from the beginning of the film changes into a powerful young woman.
This is not just purely out of survival instinct for Marieme, but it is also a rebellion against societal norms. She will do whatever she can to avoid the destiny determined by her ethnicity, gender and class — specifically, Marieme does not want to grow up to become a poor and abused single mother. Men are a constant threat to women in Marieme’s world, so she cuts her hair short, binds her breasts and wears baggy clothing to appear less womanly.
Marieme may be the only gang member who attempts to look less feminine, but she is also the only one with a boyfriend. Girlhood may not directly speak to LGBTQ issues, but the female characters do prefer the company of women. As far as we can surmise, there is nothing sexual about their relationships, but the girlfriends are extremely protective and supportive of each other. It seems very possible that Lady, Fily and Adiatou would not be able to survive without each other.
Skillfully avoiding any of the usual tropes or cliches of gang-related dramas, Girlhood is not about redemption, nobody gets “saved.” Girlhood does not glamorize gang culture, nor does it overtly criticize it. In Sciamma’s eyes, female gangs fulfill the desire to be accepted as part of a social group, kind of like a sorority or sports team. Though these wild packs of girls do occasionally grow rambunctious and volatile, they also function as surrogate families, providing the girls with a level of safety and security that they cannot find at home. That is not to say that Sciamma glorifies thuggery either. Since we see female gang culture from Marieme’s perspective, we witness just how fake it all is. You can only do what you want for so long before you have to grow up and find a way to make a living.