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12 May 2015

Girlhood avoids easy answers in its portrayal of growing up in the Paris suburbs

Céline Sciamma’s third coming-of-age film subverts expectations every step of the way.

By Barbara Speed

If you haven’t seen it, you probably will soon. It starts with a still frame, cropped close on a young woman’s blue-lit face. Rihanna’s Diamonds is playing and she mouths the words, all raw tension and angry eyes. And then her face cracks into a grin, and another girl bounces into shot, and then another, then another. They’re in a hotel room, lit by a crappy TV, dancing and laughing, having the time of their lives. 

This is the most-shared clip, and most memorable scene, of Céline Sciamma’s Girlhood, smash hit in the French box office and now released in the UK. It’s also a hint at why the English title – chosen by the film’s American distributor, perhaps to cash in on comparisons with Richard Linklater’s Boyhood or Menhaj Huda’s Kidulthood – doesn’t really work.

Linklater had no qualms about trying to define an entire generation of post-boomer American kids, and, in fact, revelled in his movie’s myth-like status. But you get the sense that this was not Sciamma’s vision. She originally called her film Bande de filles, which means gang, or band,  of girls, and every frame in the film seems dedicated to telling not the story of the projects, or of the banlieue, or even of “girlhood”, but the stories of a specific group of young women. 

The film centres on Marieme, a strong-willed but quiet teenager from Paris’s suburbs played beauitfully by newcomer Karidja Touré. Our expectations are blurred from the outset, because for Marieme, escape from a life where the faceless school careers advisor won’t let her go to high school, and her controlling, abusive brother won’t let her do much of anything, comes through joining a gang. 

She meets Lady (Assa Sylla), Adiatou (Lindsay Karamoh) and Fily (Mariétou Touré), outside the school gates, and at first, they’re threatening figures: all squared shoulders and weaves to Marieme’s hunched shoulders, braids, and oversized sweatshirt. Yet it’s their guidance, and Marieme’s introduction to petty crime (or, as one of the girls describes it, “getting what you want”) that gives her a voice, and power to make her own choices.

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In one scene, Marieme (later christened “Vic” by the gang, “for victory”) holds up kids at the school gate for money. Later, she uses the same tactics to stand off against her mother’s boss at a cleaning company to escape a job there, and a life like her mother’s. We are led to see that in this story, Marieme’s independence comes from precisely those things some would like us to see as the scourge of womens lives in the banlieue: petty theft, drinking, and aggression borne of gang membership.

The girls get their kicks from mini golf, stealing cheap dresses, chip shops, and travelling into Paris just to dance in a hotel room. And this is no Mean Girls: as I watched, it struck me that I couldn’t remember the last film I’d seen where female friendship wasn’t defined by queen bees and one-upmanship. Here, there’s no ulterior motive in the group’s adoption of Vic, and no recrimination when they run into an ex-member. Sciamma gives these characters the gift of just being each other’s best friends. 

Adults throughout the film are, Sciamma has said in interviews, kept to a minimum for a reason, often heard but not seen: she doesn’t want you to leave Marieme’s headspace, even for a moment. This same trick stops you drawing out the film to make it answer to a much broader sociopolitical narrative. Of course, it says things about race, class, and French society, but these are always firmly grounded in Marieme and her story. 

The film’s ambiguous ending, refusing to stoop to easy fixes or a route out of the projects, makes that clear. The film is about Marieme, and what happens to her, and perhaps, too, it’s about seeing life in the projects for what it is: a milieu of mingling stories, some happy, some sad, and all shot through with moments of joy. A little like life anywhere else, in fact.