A montage of traditional teen milestone moments, this intimate, patient and elegant coming-of-age film is not.
If only all filmmakers – or more, at least – cast the same eyes over growing up and coming of age as Céline Sciamma. In three features, Water Lilies, Tomboy and now Girlhood (Bande de filles), the French writer/director has crafted distinctive snapshots of youth concerned not with idealised sentiments, but real-life struggles. Her characters rally against expectation, dare to defy conformity and wade through the mire of conflicting influences. Getting to the heart of the eternal search for identity is her ambit, beyond easy categorisations and obvious stereotypes. A montage of traditional milestone moments, Sciamma’s films are not.
In Girlhood, it is 16-year-old Marieme’s (Karidja Touré) plight the filmmaker plots, a girl like many from the banlieues on the wrong side of the Parisian tracks simply looking for somewhere to belong. Her home life is problematic at the hands of her hot-tempered older brother (Cyril Mendy, The Intouchables), her poor grades have thwarted any chances of continuing her schooling, and her options for the future include vocational training, cleaning hotel rooms, or rebellion and crime. It is the latter path she takes after a bad-girl gang of friends become her new family. Hers is not a concerted choice, but an expression of a wanting what control she can wrestle over her own destiny.
That Marieme’s journey is not one of the unfettered bleakness of the underprivileged, or one defined solely by race, class and the various codes enforced upon her, is Sciamma’s masterstroke. Fluidity reigns as a protagonist that could’ve easily been left to languish in difficulty comes to own her tentative predicament, taking the good with the bad, slivers of solace and mounting regrets included. There are no easy options, even in her fledgling romance with fellow neighbourhood resident Ismaël (Idrissa Diabate, La cité rose); however the feature explores and understands, not judges. A roster of familiar scenarios arises, spanning comparable age-centric fare as well as the likes of La Haine, but here brimming with compassion and texture.
Take a scene, part way into the film, of frolicking and having fun that could exist in many typical teen movies. Of course, Girlhood is anything but, nor is the enjoyment on display merely innocent. The filmmaker takes pause to let Rihanna’s Diamonds run its upbeat course, the four main girls – Marieme and her new pals Lady (Assa Sylla), Adiatou (Lindsay Karamoh) and Fily (Marietou Touré) – secreted away in a hotel room, dressed up in shoplifted clothes, drinking, smoking, dancing and lip-synching along. At first, Marieme just smiles and watches, as does Sciamma, cinematographer Crystel Fournier’s (Smart Ass) blue-hued frames entrancing all caught in its music video-like vision. Then, she joins in, immersed in a dreamy interlude of simple bliss in which everything – the group dynamic, her blossoming confidence, her understanding of her femininity, her unwitting assuming of the labels and roles put upon her – changes.
Indeed, Girlhood is constantly peering into Marieme’s mindset while peering out at the world she’s trying to find her place within, the film subjective in its view yet universal in its empathy. The camera looks lovingly and directly at the commanding yet equally vulnerable Touré, a star in the making, as well as intimately, patiently and elegantly tracking all that surrounds her. The sights observed are beautiful; however the sounds of the film are just as influential, whether proving cognisant of the influence of music in adolescent lives, or buzzing with energy from the electro-pop soundtrack by Para One. It’s something stunning to become immersed in and engage with, in tandem with the improvisation by the non-professional cast of teens taken from the area depicted. Theirs are vibrant, naturalistic turns expressing the minutiae of meeting maturity on the margins, as is the feature’s entire missive of moving forward through the sorrow and struggle.
Rating: 4.5 stars out of 5
Girlhood (Bande de filles)
Director: Céline Sciamma
France, 2014, 113 mins
Perth International Arts Festival – Lotterywest Film Program
24 November 2014 – 12 April 2015
Girlhood season: 2 – 8 March
Alliance Française French Film Festival
Sydney: 3 – 22 March
Melbourne: 4 – 22 March
Adelaide: 5 – 24 March
Canberra: 6 – 25 March
Brisbane: 13 March – 1 April
Perth: 19 March – 7 April
Byron Bay: 9 – 14 April
Hobart: 16 – 21 April