Girlhood (not to be confused with or related to Richard Linklater’s Boyhood) is the third directorial effort from acclaimed filmmaker Céline Sciamma, whose previous films include Water Lilies and Tomboy. And while it might not be as effective as either of those, it nonetheless provides a striking, detailed exploration of the well-worn coming-of-age genre.
The film tells the story of 16-year-old Marieme (impressive newcomer Karidja Touré) who lives in an underprivileged area of Paris with her two younger sisters and domineering, sometimes abusive older brother. Lacking any real life prospects she one day gets involved with a gang of girls who spend their time skipping school, fighting and shoplifting. At first Marieme – eventually adopting the nickname “Vic” – feels like she has a newfound sense of purpose and confidence but soon realises it may not what truly makes her happy as her criminal activities start to escalate.
Adolescence, social standing and belonging are just some of the themes explored in Sciamma’s film and it’s done in a matter that makes you sit up and take notice. On the surface it’s a generic story about a struggling girl trying to better herself and take care of her siblings, nothing we haven’t seen before really. But there’s a refreshing honesty in Sciamma’s writing that allows plenty of room for its characters and themes to breathe and the distinct visuals – gorgeous shadowing against blue backdrops, striking scene transitions and the like – give it a unique flavour.
Essentially it’s about how an impressionable adolescent who strives to get ahead but is withheld due to her circumstances falls in with a bad crowd – the “hood” of the title refers as much to the streets as it does anything else – letting the snazzy glare of teenage rebellion, the promise of new possessions and above all else a sense of power that comes with being able to intimidate people as part of a group go to her head and allowing that to spur on a bigger spiral of wrongdoing. Sciamma clearly knows her subject matter and she effectively captures the detailed minutiae of disaffected and disenfranchised youths in French society without it ever feeling like she’s taking a judgemental, figure-wagging standpoint.
The film works less once it dispenses with the scenes of her integrating into the gang and forces the transformation of its central character into a fully-fledged criminal – in terms of attitude, actions and her newly adopted appearance – on us rather too suddenly in a way that makes it ultimately hard to truly care about her but easy to yearn for the much stronger and more compelling first segment.
That said, it doesn’t completely undo the good the film has done up until that point which is largely thanks to the performance of Touré in the central role. It’s her first ever feature film performance but watching her embody such a intricate character, you’d never know. She has all emotional complexities and vulnerabilities of a seasoned actor with the unique ability to say a lot without physically saying very much that makes her a young star to watch out for in the future; appropriately she was nominated for the Most Promising Actress at the César Awards.
Though it does go on longer than is probably necessary, occasionally overdoing some of the scenes or overstretching some of the main points that it’s trying to get across, Girlhood is clearly made with a lot of passion for the subject matter and by a filmmaker who knows exactly what she wants. Coming-of-age movies are a dime-a-dozen but it’s nice to see one that has fresh angle on things, even if can take its sweet time doing it.