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Review: Girlhood (2015)

Girlhood (2015)

Directed by: Céline Sciamma

Premise: A French film about a black teenager (Karidja Touré) who joins a clique of rowdy teenage girls.

What Works: Girlhood is a French film and its title is lost in translation. The original French title is Bande de filles, which roughly translates into “Group of Girls.” Whether the title Girlhood was intended to simplify the name or, as its detractors would say, to ride the coattails of Richard Linklater’s 2014 film Boyhood is ultimately irrelevant and should not distract from the exceptional film that this is. Girlhood is a story of Marieme, a black teenager living in a housing project. She has few prospects; her mother works all the time as a hotel maid, her older brother is abusive and controlling, and she has been disqualified from a university-track education that would set her on a path to economic mobility. With her sense of self-worth in shambles and in the midst of a seemingly hopeless situation she meets a group of tough young women. They welcome her into the group and Marieme changes her name, her clothes, and her attitude to match her new friends. Girlhood is led by Karidja Touré as Marieme and it is a very strong performance. The part isn’t flashy; the script doesn’t give her a big speech or other ostentatious moments but Touré conveys a lot with a look or a shift in her posture and director Céline Sciamma finds ways to frame her main character so that the scene always plays out through Marieme’s point of view. Girlhood also features a strong supporting performance by Assa Syalla as Lady, a leader of the clique. Lady is the alpha and she puts up a tough front but the story exposes her sensitive side. There are a number of things about Girlhood that are admirable. One is that this a film whose cast is almost entirely impoverished black youth. That is rare in the movies and it is further notable because these characters are not stereotypes. Each of the young women in Marieme’s group have a unique identity and together they have a fond rapport that is very believable. Girlhood is also unique because the filmmakers do not pity their characters. Given the social status of these young women, it would be quite easy to turn up the dramatics but the tone of Girlhood remains staid and the film allows its characters to retain their dignity. But populating a movie with black characters wouldn’t matter if the movie weren’t any good and Girlhood is a very well made and provocative picture. The film is extremely well shot and the story sends Marieme on a journey of self-discovery in which she shifts her identity in order to fit into a new environment but discovers that she still isn’t happy. 

What Doesn’t: Girlhood runs a bit long and yet parts of it seem incomplete. The film is just shy of two hours in length and it takes Marieme on a winding journey but some mundane parts of the film are emphasized while important or interesting aspects of her story are rushed through. Marieme has two younger sisters that she has to attend to while her mother is at work. As Marieme gets involved with her new friends it is implied that she’s ignoring her family responsibilities but the film doesn’t make much of that conflict. Later on it becomes clear that the middle daughter is following Marieme into street life; Marieme seems to have a moment of consciousness but it doesn’t really lead anywhere. In the second half of the picture Marieme goes to work for a criminal; it’s implied that she’s selling drugs but the filmmakers don’t spend enough time dramatizing what she’s actually doing. The point of the film is Marieme’s search for identity and the film does that well but it would be a more successful if the context of her search was clearer.

DVD extras: Interview and trailer.

Bottom Line: Girlhood is a thoughtful and well-made picture. It isn’t necessarily a feel good movie but it is shot through with honesty and the filmmakers have a good handle on their subject matter without resorting to sentimentality or becoming condescending.

Episode: #551 (July 19, 2015)