The international title of this film has made many think, quite naturally, of Richard Linklater’s Boyhood, and you could argue either way about this being or not being a counterpoint to 2014’s most praised American film. One thing’s for certain: a counterpoint was not the intention of director Céline Sciamma when she made this critically-lauded French indie, yet the question must be asked…why choose that particular title for an international release if comparisons are to be discouraged? Not that I’m implying it was the director’s preferred choice of title, of course, but it strikes me as an odd move for someone to have made, given the actual translation of the original French title Band De Filles.
Girlhood is not the ‘exact opposite’ of Boyhood some would claim but it is vastly different: a coming of age drama about a teenage French black girl – Karidja Touré’s Marieme – who is growing up fast in the tougher surroundings of the Parisian banlieues. (There’s also a narrower focus here than in Linklater’s sprawling opus; other characters feel very much secondary to Marieme, though not thinly-drawn, and the timeframe seems to cover a year or two at most, as opposed to 12 years. But whatever: they’re both coming-of-age films with ‘hood’ in the title, and both successfully establish that pop music is an important factor in the lives of its characters, and that’s about all they have in common.)
A more accurate translation of the title Bande de Filles is ‘Girl Gang’, and that perhaps should give people a better idea of what to expect. Focusing on a small central clique – Marieme, re-christened with the street name ‘Vic’, plus gang leader Lady (Assa Sylla), Adiatou (Lindsay Karamoh) and Fily (Mariétou Touré) – and with a mix of argumentative flashpoints and estate-centric violence, the film that Girlhood resembles most is Mathieu Kassovitz’s fiery mid-90s offering La Haine. Both chart a similar urban landscape with a mix of gritty realism and street style (La Haine was shot in monochrome, while Girlhood is often bright and colourful with a loud, pop-driven soundtrack) and both concentrate on a core group of multicultural characters who encounter racism when they travel from the suburbs to central Paris while also dealing with other hassles closer to home. In both films the Eiffel Tower is used in frames to create a sense of distance between the characters and affluent, touristy Paris, while the subjects of both stories have few options in life as they move into adulthood: here Marieme is seemingly blocked from progressing any further in education and her choices are laid out as being (a) pregnancy, (b) gainful employment in a cleaning job or (c) drug-dealing.
Sciamma, also the writer, refuses to judge her female characters or moralise about any of their actions while they are in ‘gang’ mode (much of which looks like girls having fun, but there are knives, and fights, and so on). Indeed the idea of banding together with other women makes perfect sense, as if it were a necessary move to enhance chances of survival: an opening scene depicting an all-female American football team returning to their tower blocks after a match establishes how different the communal spaces of the estates feel for young women in a group compared with girls who are out walking on their own; aside from one or two exceptions the male characters in Girlhood are aggressive, intimidating and predatory, and they continually bother young women who do not want the attention (or rather what the attention also implicitly brings). When Marieme joins the other three girls in their pre-existing gang it seems like the right thing for her to do, and although it does lead to petty crime it also results in a greater degree of safety, increased confidence, and offers her a temporary escape from the violent abuse she suffers at home, at the hands of a bullying older brother (Cyril Mendy). Inevitably Marieme’s willingness to do certain things on the street attracts an older male gang leader, eventually, who is keen to put the young girl to work by exploiting her vulnerability. This sets in motion a final act that serves as a lengthy and somewhat moving full-stop to her childhood, remnants of which have been gradually slipping away throughout.
The end of the film may be filled with defiance and sadness, but the movie is intoxicating (and, by contrast, joyous) when Marieme first bonds with Lady, Adiatou and Fily. She is quickly welcomed in to the gang and adopts the same spirit as the other girls, sometimes going against her own nature when doing so; their hi-jinks usually spill over into minor incidents or arguments, while the soundtrack thumps along at a high volume. She doesn’t necessarily glamourise gang culture, but during this part of Girlhood Sciamma captures the attraction of burgeoning camaraderie perfectly, and highlights how powerful a draw it is. In one memorable scene the four girls cobble together enough money for a hotel room for the night; they party in their room wearing stolen dresses, security tags still showing, and sing along to Rihanna’s monster hit Diamonds at the top of their voices. It’s euphoric filmmaking, but while it initially looks as if they are out on the town, it soon becomes apparent that they’re still in the hotel room. A reminder that the girls are still young, perhaps, and not yet old enough to get into bars. Adiatou is later seen sucking her thumb while sleeping, indicating that they are growing up too fast. In a subsequent scene Lady is applying make-up in a mirror; it looks like she is in a nightclub toilet, but soon we see that she is still on the estate and merely trying to look her best for an impending street fight.
There is an acknowledgement that one simple act – losing your virginity, for example – does not mean that you will suddenly shed all signs and traits of being a kid, or that you have opened a magical one-way door to adulthood. Sciamma is aware that this is a transitional period in the lives of her characters and builds in suggestions throughout that ‘girlhood’ overlaps with both childhood and adulthood. The main characters are at an age where they still interact with younger kids (for example at a La Défense-set dance-off) as well as older criminals, while Marieme’s steady maturity is charted most obviously via her romance with fellow teen Ismaël (Idrissa Diabaté): at first it is full of shy, tentatively sweet moments but by the end of the film they are discussing marriage.
The distinct periods in Marieme’s life that we are party to are signified by changes in her hairstyle and the way in which she dresses. When she joins the gang she quickly adopts the same look as the other girls: make-up, long hair, jeans and leather jackets. Later, when making coke drop offs at bohemian upper-middle class parties, she wears a red cocktail dress, high heels and a striking blonde wig. While trying to fit in with the male-dominated gang she eventually runs with Marieme hides her femininity by braiding her hair, wearing baggy tracksuits and taping down her breasts. Throughout there is a constant sense of the girls fighting against the problems of living in a male-dominated world, whether it be at home or on the streets, and they must adopt traces of masculinity in order to earn respect from some men.
Girlhood‘s combination of minimalism and a sporadically-colourful style, a strong screenplay and good all-round acting performances ensures it is one of the highlights of the year to date. Most of the cast members were recruited off the street in malls and stations and so on, and acquit themselves well, adding an air of credibility and authenticity to proceedings (I was convinced, anyway). The most praise must be reserved for Touré and Sylla, while Sciamma’s decision to cast unknown amateurs due to a lack of available seasoned professionals serves to highlight the dearth of similar roles for young black actresses in France.
Directed by: Céline Sciamma.
Written by: Céline Sciamma.
Starring: Karidja Touré, Assa Sylla, Lindsay Karamoh, Mariétou Touré.
Cinematography: Crystel Fournier.
Editing: Julien Lacheray.
Music: Para One, Various.
Running Time: 113 minutes.