By Jacob Mertens.
In an early sequence in Céline Sciamma’s Girlhood, a group of girls walk home at night after a football game, weaving through featureless concrete high rises. One by one, each girl peels off from group as they reach their home until only Marieme (Karidja Touré) remains. In one clear-eyed gesture, Sciamma fixes her protagonist in an increasingly vulnerable position—a young girl left alone at night in a seedy part of town—made all the more poignant for its suggestion of the routine. Throughout Girlhood, scenes like this opening tracking shot make subtle and not so subtle references to the complications that gender and economic disparity can bring to the coming of age film, a genre too often typified by more conventional concerns (and, let’s face it, overrun with pre-pubescent boys).
In a clever marketing decision, Studiocanal emphasizes this break in tradition by changing Sciamma’s original French title (Bande de filles, or “Band of Girls”) to an English iteration that places her film as a feminine alternative to Richard Linklater’s critical darling Boyhood (2014). And, ultimately, the comparison ends up being unfair, though not in the way one might imagine. After all, while Linklater’s film bolsters a low-key narrative with an unusual production design and a mundane, poetic charm that has nevertheless served the director better in other films, Sciamma’s feature has the kind of novelty on its side that truly matters: a story of a girl’s transformation into adulthood so specific and acutely told that we get an honest sense of what this journey might entail for someone on the marginalized end of the gender spectrum. In other words, she creates a story that needs to be told, if only to balance the cinematic scales just a little.
Girlhood’s loose narrative centers itself around slice of life, fragmented moments that show the ghost of French New Wave still lurking in modern French cinema. However, Sciamma challenges this by now traditional approach through a series of chapters, marked by elided time, which follow Marieme through new phases of her life in which some rough transition begets differences in her behavior and the friends she keeps. Through alternation then, scenes in which Marieme pleads with a school advisor to stay enrolled in class and avoid trade school or cares for her younger sisters under the shadow an abusive older brother play artfully against Marieme escaping this hard fought life for one marked by petty crime and brash posturing with a gang of girls that take her in. As she changes to fit in with these friends, she grows more confident in her actions and begins to separate herself from her family.
However, Marieme’s implicit need to support herself and escape her home life looms and the audience gets the sense that these aimless exploits with her newfound clique cannot be sustained over time. In a telling scene, Marieme and her friends lip-synch to Rihanna’s “Diamonds” in a hotel room purchased with scrounged and stolen money; they wear shoplifted dresses, drink booze, dance, and jump around the room with unrestrained glee. As they eventually find their voices and sing over the track, one gets the sense that they find a fleeting freedom in expression and individuality as well. However, their freedom proves to be a temporary fix. In a minute the song will be over, in several hours the hotel will no longer belong to them, and they will all be displaced once again. In Marieme’s case, that fact feels particularly pronounced by her brother’s desultory animosity, a reminder that for all her posturing and unattached meandering, she can have little physical control over her world so long as her imposing, irascible sibling remains nearby and so long as she does not have either the funds or the courage to leave her family.
As the narrative shifts again, Marieme abandons both her family and friends, finding refuge selling drugs in another part of town. In a striking reversal, her entry into a more sustainable criminal life causes her to sacrifice her own femininity so as not to attract unwanted attention from a new cast of familiars: fellow drug dealers with low morals and low opinions of women. She tapes her breasts down, fashions her hair like a man, wears men’s clothes, and struts around town with a put-on swagger that paradoxically hides her away in plain daylight. Meanwhile, her sole female friend is a prostitute who trades on her femininity in the only other way seemingly acceptable in this social strata of criminals and destitutes. By following Marieme’s path to this claustrophobic, seemingly dead-end, Sciamma illustrates how fragile that journey to adulthood can be and how easily her character—a smart girl with considerable courage and grace—can lose her essential identity amidst efforts to change and protect herself.
Thankfully, the director does not end on this note but favors a more open-ended path for the final act, closing on an empty frame that seems to be a spiritual compliment to Truffaut’s still image in The 400 Blows (1959). However, this comparison once again yields a necessary distinction, for while Truffaut’s Antoine Doinel faces an intimidating freedom marked by a need to survive in the waning moments of the film, there is something far more harrowing to Girlhood’s end. While Marieme emerges from her tribulations stronger for going through them, an empty frame suggests just that: emptiness. Marieme is forceful but fragile, harsh but gentle—a stunning compliment of contradictions—and in the end nearly forfeits her individuality in her pursuit for independence. It follows, then, that the truly frightening aspect of her story is how easily it could have happened.
Jacob Mertens is Review Editor for Film International.