Directed by: Maïmouna Doucouré
Premise: A French film. An eleven year old girl (Fathia Youssouf) growing up in a conservative Muslim household wants to be part of a clique of fashionable girls known as “The Cuties.” She joins them in a dance competition with risqué choreography.
What Works: Cuties is a portrait of young womanhood and the pressures to conform and belong. The story centers upon Amy, played by Fathia Youssouf, a tween aged girl who lives in a conservative Muslim household. In her family, modesty is expected and women’s roles are traditional. Amy wants to be part of the popular clique of girls known as “The Cuties” and she joins their salacious dance troupe. It’s implied that Amy’s desire to be part of that group is rooted in the Cuties’ perceived freedom. She’s also rebelling against her family. Amy’s father is taking a second wife which has broken her mother’s heart. Cuties approach is both thoughtful and provocative. Like a lot of immigrant stories, Cuties is about someone caught between different cultural norms. But Cuties does not simplistically idealize western liberation or demonize Muslim tradition. The movie suggests something more complex, implying that western attitudes about women might not be as far departed from the mores of Amy’s traditional family as they are assumed to be. There is a fascinating tension in Cuties between innocence and vice. These girls imitate the looks and dance moves of hypersexual music videos but they do so without fully grasping the implications. In this respect, Cuties critiques the messages that media sends to young women and the film dramatizes how girls internalize the implicit meanings of that imagery, shaping the way they see and value themselves. This is not an airheaded empowerment tale; the film doesn’t frame sexuality as an inherently empowering device. It’s actually interrogating that idea and exposing its superficiality. Like all young people, Amy is trying to figure out who she is. Cuties portrays its young characters adrift in the virgin and whore dichotomy that so often defines the way women are perceived and the film’s startling imagery makes us reevaluate the hypersexual imagery of popular culture that we may have taken for granted.
What Doesn’t: Cuties is an unsettling movie especially for those who find repugnant the sexualization of children (which is almost everyone). The picture has caused some furor in that regard but those protesting this film are missing the point. No one earnestly engaging with this picture could mistake Cuties as an endorsement of sexualizing young girls. It is, in fact, doing the opposite. But Cuties is uncomfortable to watch because it uses the imagery and techniques of sexualization. Individual images and sequences, taken out of context, appear to sexualize the young characters. But it’s the context that gives these images their meaning and attacking the parts while ignoring the whole is bad film criticism. Cuties is undeniably a provocation. The filmmakers concoct incendiary images but they also respect the audience’s intelligence enough to trust us to think about that imagery.
DVD extras: Currently available on Netflix.
Bottom Line: Cuties is not Billy Elliot but it’s not Kids either. This is a smart and nuanced picture about the way in which we’ve imagined womanhood and the values those images impart to impressionable viewers. It’s a challenging film but one that does more than just provoke.
Episode: #818 (September 20, 2020)