The Coming-of-Age film is one that I have discussed many times on this blog, with my writing largely discussing the difficulties of such a movie being distinct within a crowded genre. The last few years have, to be fair, delivered some true greats of the genre, be it Richard Linklater’s masterful Boyhood, or James Ponsoldt’s The Spectacular Now. Girlhood (no connection with Linklater) manages to carve its own identity for itself by its choice of focus, that being the experience of a Black French teen-aged girl living in the projects on the outskirts of Paris. As a result, Celine Sciamma’s film has a unique perspective, and it is one that proves to be quite electrifying.
Young Marieme (Karidja Toure) lives a far from ideal life in a small flat in the projects, which she shares with her two younger sisters, a constantly working mother, and an abusive older brother. With little hope for her educational future at a high school, Marieme falls into a girl gang and engages with a side of teen-aged culture that, while dangerous and volatile, is capable of providing true friendships.
The film I was most reminded of whilst watching Girlhood was, for obvious reasons, Mathieu Kassovitz’s 1995 film La Haine. Both involve the experience of minority groups within the French projects, and involve the experience of gang culture within these dwellings. Both films paint the environment as quite dangerous, but also one in which fun can be had, usually with a group of friends. The future does not seem particularly bright for any of the young adults within the films, but the city is a place where fun can be had and escapism from reality can be achieved.
Sciamma does seem to be very aware of La Haine as a similar text, as both employ a style which can be called close to that of a documentary, as Girlhood both feels very raw yet very stylistic at the same time through certain sequences which demonstrate the euphoria of being young and forgetting all your worries. One such sequence involving a rendition of Rihanna’s ‘Diamonds’ perfectly encapsulates what a lot of coming-of-age movies tend to struggle to convey; a genuine expression of the joy of youth and the beauty of true friendship.
The film is at its strongest when in the company of Marieme and the three friends whom make up her gang; Lady (Assa Sylla), Adiatou (Lindsay Karamoh), and Fily (Marietou Toure). The unknown actresses flawlessly convey a beliivable dynamic between the girls, with each performance conveying a naturalness that is hard to find, but oh so important in allowing for a film which would sink or swim on its central casting. All four actresses do not let the weight of the roles intimidate them, turning in powerful performances for It is a shame that the film chooses to leave the group in the final act, as the scenes with all four characters are when the film is at its most vibrant, memorable, and unique.
The third act unfortunately descends into more clichéd and predictable territory as Marieme involves herself with a Gang boss. These moments miss the energy and the focus of the earlier moments of the film which takes time to demonstrate the culture that these girls indulge in. Despite Marieme being closer to the danger, it feels less volatile, less personal, and therefore it is less engaging. The final moments themselves bring something back of the optimistic yet cautious tone that occupies a lot of this experience, but unfortunately it doesn’t quite strike as potent a tone as it could have due to Sciamma’s decision to refocus events away from the engaging central friendship group.
Girlhood is a film which I highly recommend, it is a unique text and one which provides excellent roles for amazingly talented young black female actresses. There are also many fine stylistic flourishes which mark Sciamma as a female director worth keeping an eye on, as her balanced and acutely objective stance provides the film with a very honest heart and a very tough skin. It was wonderful to see a nearly full audience comes out to engage with this text, and I hope others will make the effort to seek it out, as despite the shortcomings of the final act, it really is a unique piece of art with an aim in portraying an under represented area of French Youth society.