Girlhood is a French film about a group of friends who get up to no good and in the end become women, so there isn’t really anything particularly new about it as far as that goes. Where it is different is in the fact that these girls are black and from the rougher part of Paris. Girlhood then is a film about growing up but it is not the kind of film that fits into the white middle class fantasy that most films prefer to stay in. But here there lies a slight problem with the film.
First, perfunctorily, the plot synopsis. Marieme (Karidja Touré) is a 16 year old African-French woman living in an economically deprived suburb of Paris. Her mother works nights and is rarely around and her abusive brother makes the rules at home. Falling out of school, she falls in with a gang lead by Lady (Assa Sylla), and becomes a member of the gang. These friendships help Marieme become more self-confident but does not necessarily lead to happiness.
Girlhood is anchored by some fantastic and realistic performances, which often feel more real than the situations themselves. They give angry and committed performances that heighten most of the sillier scenes and which carry off both the emotional and the physical moments. There are a couple of fight scenes that are has convincing as anything similar in any more masculine film.
Girlhood offers many things probably not seen before. Films of the urban poor are often exclusively male so the film does feel unique for its female focus. It begins with an interesting sequence, in which a group of girls playing American football, Marieme included, with all the strength and grit that that would take. We then cut to the same group, shed of the bulky sports gear, walking home. As they split up into ever smaller groups and walk in amongst crowds of males, they become quieter and quieter, their heads kept lower and lower. It is a powerful sequence, in that it shows the subtle ways that paternalism has remained in society. Nothing in particular happens to anyone, but it is telling that the scene is nonetheless tense.
For all the things that are praiseworthy about Girlhood – its performances, its insight into a side of our society that hasn’t been seen in such detail before, its mostly fluid plotting – there are some things had don’t ring quite so true. The film is directed by Céline Sciamma, a white middle class woman, and, for all her very obvious skill, panache and understanding, there is an element of distance about her camera. Some critics have gone as far as saying that she is fetishizing her characters and, indeed, her performers. I wouldn’t go as far as that, but there is a distance that is maintained throughout. More problematic for me, however, is the film’s insistence on casting the film in a near fairy tale light. Girlhood is realistic and grim, but Sciamma seems to wants us to consider the film more as a work of symbolism. So we do get an insight into Marieme’s life and the cultural and socio-economic reasons for her indifference and dissatisfaction with the world outside her friends, but they are very shallow. Her teacher, castigating her off screen in one scene, is written off practically as a villain. The film’s refusal to judge does not stretch beyond the four members of Lady’s gang, which feels only like a denial of reality. More irritatingly, Sciamma prefers to see Marieme’s very real decline as some kind of positive, self-actualizing, even feminist experience. After every new low (her decision to start carrying a knife, her bullying, her petty crime, her abandonment of her home including her sister), the film cuts to a blank screen for a long stretch, scored with near triumphant, hopeful, transcendent music. By the end, Marieme has lost everything and Sciamma prefers to see this as character building, rather than what it is and what it would be in real life. By the end, Sciamma’s film seems to celebrate Marieme’s tough life for its fairy tale and feminist associations, in the process denying its very real difficulties. It seems, then, that it is not Marieme’s blackness that Sciamma is fetishizing, but her poverty.
There are a lot of films about the urban poor and the difficulties of their existence due to a range of factors from uncaring bureaucracy to unemployment to drugs to crime. Girlhood is worthy of celebration of approaching the subject from an angle too long ignored. It has a fantastic cast of young and honest actors. But what Girlhood depicts is real, not symbolic, and it is hard not to feel that a disservice has been done.