Girlhood, the latest exploration of burgeoning female identity by writer-director Céline Sciamma (Tomboy, Water Lilies), opens with a high school football game in which the players, wearing pads and helmets, run around the field, tackling and blocking each other and scoring touchdowns. Then the game is over, and the helmets come off, and we discover the players are girls. Both teams celebrate and exchange high fives, regardless of who lost. For these young women, the fun is not about winning but simply being and belonging.
That scene is the first indication that Girlhood (which underwent a title change from its French-language Band of Girls, presumably to serve as a marketable counterpoint to last year’s Boyhood), is not going to be a typical story about an adolescent girl’s coming of age. Marieme (Karidja Touré) is 16 and lives in the projects outside Paris with her single, often-absent working mother, two younger sisters and a physically abusive older brother. When she is told her grades aren’t good enough for her to be accepted into high school and that she must attend a vocational college instead, she quits studying altogether and falls in with a trio of fellow dropouts (Assa Sylla, Lindsay Karamoh and Mariétou Touré) looking for a fourth member to round out their gang. In them, Marieme finds kindred spirits, mirrors with reflections that flatter and empower her.
More The Outsiders than The Warriors, these girls aren’t as interested in fighting as they are in forming a family of their own, although they are not above bullying younger kids for money or occasionally throwing down with another gang after school. Marieme, excited by her beautiful, jovial new friends, follows their lead and straightens her hair, starts wearing makeup and steals stylish clothing she can’t afford. In one scene, the foursome holes up in a hotel room for a night, taking bubble baths, wearing dresses still bearing price tags and anti-shoplifting alarms, and sing and dance to Rihanna’s Diamonds, bathed in an otherworldly blue light. Sciamma holds her camera on the girls for the duration of the song, allowing us to share in the sense of sisterhood that has intoxicated Marieme — a radical contrast to her drab, routine home life. At that moment, surrounded by friends who have embraced and accepted her and rechristened her Vic (short for Victory), Marieme feels a sort of happiness and excitement she’s rarely felt. For a few hours, her not-so-bright future doesn’t matter: The present is too much fun to worry about what comes next.
But eventually, the party must end and reality must be confronted. Sciamma uses an uncommonly light touch in depicting Marieme’s gradual transformation from an unformed blank slate into a self-assured girl who doesn’t always make the right decisions in the process of figuring herself out (Touré, who had never acted before, is so talented and expressive we can practically read her character’s mind in every moment of the film).
Marieme starts dating a boy (Idrissa Diabate) who pushes her to have sex. She begins to mimic her friends’ behavior, using threats and intimidation to get out of doing things she doesn’t want to do. She also starts going down an increasingly dangerous path, running errands for some small-time drug dealers (the only roles in the film played by white actors, an intentional reversal of, say, John Hughes’ all-Caucasian adolescent universe). Sciamma doesn’t place any particular thematic importance on the girls’ race, letting their outcast status and working-class social standing serve as its own commentary. Girlhood’s real focus is Marieme, a teenager standing at a critical juncture, trying to figure out who she is while making seemingly trivial decisions that could determine the direction of the rest of her life.
Cast: Karidja Touré, Mariétou Touré, Assa Sylla, Lindsay Karamoh, Idrissa Diabate.
Writer-director: Céline Sciamma.
A Strand Releasing release. Running time: 112 minutes. In French with English subtitles. Vulgar language, schoolyard violence, sexual situations, drug use. In Miami-Dade only: Miami Beach Cinematheque.