This is another marvelous meditation on female identify in flux from Céline Sciamma, who continues to produce such richly rewarding work surrounding subjects and individuals that cinema should see more focus on. While her previous two films – the impressive Water Lilies and the utterly wonderful Tomboy – were more economical, subtle and gentle pieces, Girlhood illustrates filmmaking with sheer poise, dynamism and electricity. Sciamma explores burgeoning sexuality, gender fluidity and the solidarity behind female empowerment. It’s material that has defined her work to date, but her artistic evolution here has made it no less elegant, resonant and accentuated.
While having little relation to the similarly titled Boyhood, the film does follow a character on a transformational journey, but on a scale much more abridged. In an attempt to find her place in the world during the precarious transition from childhood to adulthood, teenager Marieme (Karidja Touré) begins to accept the role that society has seemingly determined for her. The environment engulfing the Paris banlieue where she reaides is dominated by masculinity. Her conversion from Marieme into Vic, a name and personality she adopts after gang leader Lady (Assa Sylla) gives her a stolen necklace bearing that name, is itself dominated by embracing this masculine law. The name is not chosen for her and is merely a further predetermined characteristic that she must accept in an oppressive society that Sciamma makes a sad and supreme indictment of in her commentary on gender norms in the modern world.
Ultimately her bittersweet metamorphosis is characterised by her usurpation of the leader role, both in the gang she befriends and the neighbourhood itself after she defeats a local rival in a fight in an act of redemption after the rival defeats Lady. Ironically, this role within their society is the female equivalent to that of her manipulative and abusive older brother; an individual who throughout the film causes Vic to disappear and Marieme to reappear. She has always had this impression of what an adult should be, with an absent and cold mother offering little challenge, and it’s only when she becomes that person does her brother welcome her into his world and she can feel comfortable in it.
These more stereotypically masculine pleasures and achievements, such as permission to play FIFA with her brother or embarrassing rivals in playground scraps, are cleverly juxtaposed by Sciamma. In one of the films most memorable scenes, the group of young girls dance to the song ‘Diamonds’ by Rihanna in a hotel room they’ve purchased with stolen money. Dressed in security tagged clothes, the urban housing estate turns to a luxury slumber party where pizza, baths and pop music give these girls as much pleasure as the trouble making petty crimes they get by on. Their authentic and engaging performances demonstrate Sciamma’s continued expertise in the direction of young performers dealing with challenging work. It’s a captivating sequence with beautifully blurred parallels, where the young girls simply act like young girls and become one entity as they’re enraptured by the moment of connection and freedom – just as we are with it.
For more of my in-depth analysis and thoughts on Girlhood, listen to episode 5 of the Project Projection podcast