The original French title of Celine Sciamma’s latest feature is Bande de filles. It translates into English as “Band of Girls”. The reason for which the title was changed in translation is unknown to me, and truth be told, I don’t really much about the reasons. The interesting part about the change is that it inadvertently puts the film in comparison to one of the most talked about movies of the past year. Just on a surface level it’s easy to see how Girlhood couldn’t be a more different film from Boyhood. Not only was it not filmed over twelve years, but their protagonists couldn’t be more different. One is a middle class white boy from Texas, the other a black teenage girl living in the projects outside of Paris. Girlhood curiously deals with the type of people that were absent from Boyhood, but analyzing it only in comparison to Linklater’s film would be doing a pretty terrific movie a disservice.
At the same time, it would be foolish to deny that part of Girlhood‘s appeal is the fact that it tells the story of a character who is seldom put on film, and even more seldom portrayed this meticulously. Marieme (Karidja Touré) is a teenage girl struggling to take agency in her life. She lives in an enormous housing complex where she takes her of her two sisters and is often mistreated by her older brother. Her mother works as some sort of janitor in a big building, and is not around the house most of the time. Marieme wants to go to high school, but her low grades and the French education system won’t allow her. That’s when she meets her “band of girls”.
They are Adiatou (Lindsay Karamoh), Fily (Marietou Toure), and Lady (Assa Sylla). None of them go to school, they just spend their days hanging out and bullying middle schoolers into giving them money so they can buy booze and pizza. I guess you could describe them as fuck-ups, but what would you do if you were in their place? Life is rigged against these girls. Going to high school is not a possibility, getting a job would mean cleaning toilets. They are young and they want something out of life that they will likely never get. At one point the girls get enough money together to rent out a room and have a slumber party. Once there, the four girls dress up in clothes they’ve stolen from fancy stores and dance to Rihanna. “We’re beautiful like diamonds in the sky”. They are happy, and yet, this is one of the most heartbreaking sequences in the whole movie.
It’s from scenes like that one that the movie develops its power. When the movie was over, my girlfriend turned to me and said she liked how so many things remained unsaid. If ever there was a filmmaker that adhered to the “show, don’t tell” rule, it’s Sciamma. Her symbolism isn’t always subtle, but it’s always effective. She knows she’s working in an inherently visual medium, and she will take advantage of it. Visual motifs recur, and when they do, they come back with power. This type of visual storytelling can sometimes feel too pre-calculated, but in this case, Sciamma has the advantage of working with such a lively and naturalistic group of actresses. For every preciously framed and designed moment, we get something rougher around the edges, like a rather hilarious rant at a mini-golf course that reminds us that these are people that we’re dealing with.
Also, some of Sciamma’s visual choices are rather subtle. Gong back to the “Diamonds” sequence, we realize that hanging out with these girls provides an outlet for Marieme, but nothing more. The happiness they feel is real, but are the circumstances? Sciamma puts her lead character in front of had-edged angles. Tiles on walls, stairs, or the vertical lines of the housing complex. We constantly see Marieme trapped in a metaphorical box. Whenever it feels like she’s finding her way to herself, the background reminds us that change is harder than we would want it to be. That is ultimately why Girlhood is such a powerful movie. It is as generous and respectful of its lead characters as it is crude and realistic when it comes to the world around them.
Don’t be fooled, though. I wouldn’t have done a good job if I made Girlhood sound like a dour experience. There is no denying that it is, in essence, an infuriating film. An urgent movie that wants to scream at the face of the system that refuses to change. It is, at the same time, full of humanity, and confident in the belief that there is value in keeping up the fight. This movie, like it’s lead character, will march forward. The fight is only lost if one side stops fighting, and Marieme certainly won’t. She won’t rest until she proves that she is, in fact, a diamond in the sky.
Grade: 9 out of 10