What is it like to have your socio-economic background count you as invisible, or worthy of suspicion? How do children grow up in communities in which straying into intimidation and violence is approved and rewarded by their peers? Director Céline Sciamma tackles these questions in her new feature Girlhood, the third in what she considers a trilogy of coming-of-age films. Both Water Lilies and Tomboy have been recognised at Cannes and Berlin respectively. With Girlhood, using a cast of principally non-actors, her methods are similar to South American new wave film-makers, whom like her, have used the device to underline social issues and generate a unique authenticity on film. As a result, Girlhood is a powerful, utterly moving film, both joyfully celebrating friendship and denouncing social injustice.
The film tells the story of Marieme (Karidja Touré), a sixteen-year-old teenager who drops out of school after she is refused entry into the next grade. She lives in a banlieue, one of the deprived suburbs which circle Paris. Stuck between a physically abusive brother (Cyril Mendy) and an absent mother, she befriends a group of three girls (Assa Sylla, Lindsay Karamoh, and Mariétou Touré) who take her under their wing and help her affirm her independence. While heartbreakingly, asserting herself comes through learning petty intimidation, violence, and robbery, Marieme also discovers the value of friendship and loyalty.
Touré is excellent at portraying the transition between shy, hesitant Marieme, and her new persona, which she calls Vic. The latter is confident, menacing, and still vulnerable to the threat within her home. She and her friends live in a harsh world, in which insults and stances of dominance are currency, and anti-social behaviour is clearly the only way towards a somewhat more free life. Watching Vic sway between a series of unenviable options is wrenching. Each may have their petty benefits, but all play into the unfair system she inhabits. There is little escape from the banlieues, and no one from the outside world cares much to help. Her only comfort are her companions, whom Sylla, Karamoh and Touré portray with commanding and unaffected performances. Not a scene with them feels acted, or unnatural.
As a result, Sciamma gives a damning portrayal of French society. Not unlike José Padilha’s Elite Squad, set in Rio, she shows the wealthy and hip Parisian youth carelessly purchase drugs, not giving thought to where they come from or whom they impact on the way. They exist in a parallel world and culture to that of the characters in her film, and so does Marieme’s school teacher, who is not even showed on camera. Whose fault is it, the teacher asks, that Marieme cannot make high school, refusing to acknowledge the obvious discomfort of her pupil, along with her burning desire to succeed. Girlhood is a potent account of friendship in adversity, as well as the day-to-day lives of the Parisian banlieues, often ignored by the media.