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The opening scenes of Céline Sciamma‘s elegant and tender Girlhood (Bande de filles – Band of Girls) are so beautifully realized, so committed in both the establishment of the film’s theme and the gossamer-like trust it challenges the viewer to make in accepting that theme, it feels like perfection. On a football (American-style) field in a Paris banlieue, two teams of girls in proper football gear play a night game to an audience of none. In slo-mo, the young girls run and catch and tackle and play. When it’s over, they all gather, both teams, in the center of the field and cheer and celebrate together, even though we don’t know who wins, because that is not the reason they are happy. They are fierce and powerful. They are girls. Then the scene shifts. In the dark of night, the girls are now unarmored in their street clothes walking home in a group laughing and excitedly talking until they enter the projects where the boys linger in shadows, cat-calling. The girls fall into silence, breaking off into smaller and smaller sets as they head to their apartments until there is only one. It’s a dialogue-free introduction that tells us more than a hundred lines of needless narration ever could.
That “one” is Marieme (the astonishing Karidja Touré) and she comes home to two younger sisters who are feeding themselves, which seems typical. Their single mother is working so often she is never home, so it is up to Marieme to take care of the house. She is patient, caring, thoughtful and responsible. She is also only 16. It is the end of the school year and her grades are poor. She is facing the prospect of having to join a trade school or worse, end up working like her mother, cleaning hotels. Marieme is a shy, delicate young girl, but is soon drawn to three other girls who beckon her to join them from the bleachers, making a four-person gang. She likes the empowerment and takes to the minor bullying, scuffles and petty shoplifting. She changes her hair and her clothes. She is suddenly somebody. The four are a powerful set and their little world is their own. And it’s not long after that another wonderful moment emerges in this film full of them. The four girls find themselves in a hotel room after stealing some department store dresses. Lady, the leader of the group, gives Marieme a necklace and a new name: Vic for Victory. Then the girls try on their stolen clothes, as Marieme watches her new friends celebrate and then dance, lip-syncing to Rihanna’s uplifting, “Diamonds.”
Marieme joins them and the four girls move about together with pure joy at being alive, free and with a powerful sense of belonging. The scene is saturated in warm blue and the music takes on its true meaning as the girls shine in happiness and frienship. This isn’t a fifteen second fadeout to another scene but a full-song epic moment of acceptance and growth as the camera captures Marieme blossoming in a way she’s never felt before. No one in the room cares about the outside world, the limitations it sets upon them and the challenges they must all face, for right now they are who they are and that is everything that matters.
Céline Sciamma uses this scene as catalyst for the rest of this high-energy coming of age movie that sees Marieme/Vic face far more harrowing and adult moments after her initiation. Comparisons are naturally going to be made to Richard Linklater‘s Boyhood, as the titles seem like movies in a box set, yet that is really where the similarities end. We spend only a year with Marieme in this French language film, and discover, as she does during her metamorphosis much about the world she lives in and what she needs to be in order to survive. The complicated intricacies of family, friends, boys, sex, and loyalty are the everyday rungs in a ladder that has no top, but she is always climbing. Sciamma never lets the camera be anything more than an observer, avoiding judgment or romanticism of the path Marieme is taking. We are simply the fly on the wall. And what sights we see. Not quite able to sustain the rawness and potential of the first half, the film is still an absolute marvel and an emotional journey that lingers long after it’s over. Sciamma crafts a sincere and heartfelt experience that is mesmerizing for its direction and story but mostly because of the explosive performance of Touré, who utterly embodies the role and the title. Like every movie, it has one great moment.
The leader of Marieme’s little gang is Lady (Assa Sylla), a streetwise young woman raised in and trying to keep her status in the projects. She takes Marieme in and though she’s tough on her at first, she is really sheltering her under her wing. There’s a bond between them, perhaps because of their history, but Lady is the female figure of power that Marieme needs. The back lots of the banlieue where the girls make their mark is a haven for petty thugs and lots of territorial disputes, which usually climaxes in battles of words but occasionally erupts into a one-on-one fight that ends when one has removed the other’s top, a literal stripping of the loser’s coat of arms. For Lady, we sense this is a ritual she’s been a part of many times. It is watched by a crowd, filmed with cellphones and cheered by all, whomever side one chooses. On this day, Lady takes her time, even applying make up as she prepares, donning the war paint of her gang. The newcomer is smaller but faster and the fight is not a “girl-fight” of taunting and slapping but rather unexpectedly brutal. They punch, kick, grapple and hit to harm as the onlookers wildly cheer. Lady is good, and she seems totally in control. But that changes quickly when a kick lands just right and sends the bigger girl to the dirt where she is pummeled and soon stripped. It is shocking for most watching, but especially for Marieme who believed Lady invincible.
As Marieme learns that the streets are big enough to take even Lady down, she is unsure where to turn and when Lady, in humiliation, rejects Marieme’s attempt at consolation, she escapes the scene and finds herself in the arms of Ismaël (Idrissa Diabaté) a boy she has known most of her life. It is a tender moment that is not, refreshingly, sexualized, but allowed to be about the girl and her emotions. It’s a wonderful, vulnerable yet empowering image.
Marieme has flashbacks to the fight and the chilling memories of Lady on the ground, hyper-stylized in her mind. It ignites something inside her, a coldness that further buttresses the evolving woman she is making herself to be. Though promised by her mother to be hired by the hotel where she cleans, Marieme gets tough in the boss’s face and tells her she won’t accept but to tell her mother it was the boss’s idea to let her go. The boss acquiesces. After the fight, as the four girls walk through the projects, they come across boys on a stoop and they harass Lady for losing her title and wrecking the honor of the ‘hood. And worse, in punishment, her father chops off her hair, a female Samson with no power.
Marieme tells Lady that they should go after the girl again, which only infuriates Lady, yelling at her junior about thinking she knows best. Hurt and feeling weak, Lady runs off while Marieme and the other girls go to a fast food joint, only to encounter a group of girls who berate them further. It’s also here where Marieme discovers why she became the fourth member of the gang, as the previous “fourth” shows up with a baby on her arm. It’s an eye-opening experience for Marieme and teaches her that reality is always close-by, no matter if you change your name your clothes and your friends.
Marieme arranges a meeting with the gang without inviting Lady and the three take to the fighting grounds where Marieme faces off against the girl who dethroned Lady. The battle is quick. It’s also violent. Marieme lashes out at the girl and soundly defeats her. With the girl in a dusty, bloodied heap on the ground, Marieme pulls a knife from her pocket and for a brief, frightening moment, there is a sense that she will do something truly dreadful, but instead, uses the blade to cut the straps and clasp on the fallen girl’s bra, not only stripping her of her shirt, which is the ground rules for a win, but her very dignity. The win is defining and immediately sets a new tone for the contest. And for Marieme. She and her girls leave victorious, bra (trophy) in hand, and head to an abandoned fountain and splash about in the rain water, gleefully dousing each other, the metaphor clear.
It’s not long after when Lady returns, having heard the news of Marieme’s win. She approaches her junior and there is anger in her eyes, and condemnation in her voice. Marieme says she did it for her, but Lady knows better. “Stop it,” she says, “You know who you did if for?” And she’s right. There is a long silence as Lady eyes Marieme who in turn stares at her rain-soaked shoes. With the film never painting a predictable picture, it is unclear what is going to happen, though what does is truthfully unexpected. And genuinely moving.
Girlhood is a fascinating story from start to finish, building a relationship with the viewer that is rare in film, trusting the audience to follow and believing we are smart enough to care. When Marieme and the boy who likes her text each other, there are no flashy speech bubbles on the screen popping up and telling us what they say. We see by their actions, in silent communication from a second floor window to the parking lot below, what is being asked. This is the magic of Sciamma’s vision, a potent, brash and deeply personal glimpse into the lives of four young Parisian women.
Director: Céline Sciamma
Writer: Céline Sciamma (screenplay)
Stars: Karidja Touré, Assa Sylla, Lindsay Karamoh, Mariétou Touré