Girlhood (Bande de filles)

France (2014) Dir. Céline Sciamma

Having already challenged two social conventions with lesbianism (Water Lillies) and gender confusion (Tomboy) in her first two films, Céline Sciamma sets her sights on the French black community for her third film Girlhood – not a female companion piece to the Oscar nominated Boyhood as the English title may suggest.

The story is rather straightforward but it is what Sciamma does with it that counts. Marieme (Karidja Touré) is a teenage girl living in a small estate outside of Paris, with her younger sister, bullying older brother and her busy mother who works al hours as a cleaner. While good at sports, particularly American football, Marieme is struggling academically which puts her in an uninspiring position in terms of post school prospects much to her disappointment.

Marieme is then invited to join a trio of delinquent looking girls, Lady (Assa Sylla), Adiatou (Lindsay Karamoh) and Fily (Mariétou Touré) on a trip to Paris, which she declines until she spots them talking to Ismael (Idrissa Diabate), a friend of her brother’s she has a crush on. Welcomed as a part of the gang quickly, Marieme changes her image and her attitude as they make their mark on the community around them.

I’m loathe to use the word “cliché“ but Sciamma’s script does follow a tried and tested formula that covers every trope, scenario and development we’ve seen countless time before. However, Sciamma is still able to turn out a well-crafted and wholly engaging film despite this immediately obvious pitfall, with vibrant, realistic characters and superb performances from the cast of the first time actors.

Sciamma’s motive for making this film was to give screen time to what she felt was an underrepresented section of the French arts world, the black acting community with a script that serves as part celebration of teen black culture. At the risk of causing offence, this could have been set in any black community across the globe as many familiar characteristics and traits of the girls are present here, as if the transporting of location was purely incidental.

Along with charting Marieme’s descent into making costly life choices, the main theme explored here is the bond of girl gangs, a genuine bond of friendship and not just the superficial sense of belonging with a similar minded collective. The girls are trouble but not necessarily with a capital “T” – certainly they steal, are rude, bullying an carry themselves with an arrogant swagger but beneath this rebellious veneer are a quartet of girls who are straighter than they let on.

Marieme’s character change initially seems hasty, going from a well-mannered, non-confrontational girl to a sneering shoplifter gang member with attitude within two scenes, but her uncertainty and reluctance to fully convert to the gang life style is nicely played under the surface. With Marieme’s home life hardly a bed of roses with a hard working mother, two young sisters and a bullying older brother, acceptance by Lady and the gang is a huge positive.

Sciamma depicts the bonding of the group through sublime visual interludes – one using the Rihanna track Diamonds as they dance together in a hotel room manages to magically encapsulate the camaraderie and affection each girl holds individually and collectively in that few minutes than an entire string of scenes could convey.

The catalyst for change comes when Lady is beaten in a fight with a girl from a rival gang, humiliated by losing her shirt and later having her hair cut off by her father. Marieme vows revenge which Lady vetoes but Marieme – now nicknamed “Vic” – ignores her order and beats the girl, stripping her topless in the process. With a new found reputation comes a new found confidence but from that doesn’t equate to a more fulfilling future for Marieme.

Sciamma is aiming for a sense of female empowerment with Girlhood as she has done with her previous films. As a lesbian, she may be accused of man hating, especially as the men in this film are portrayed as bullying ego maniacs, but then again the film is set around gang culture and the seedy underbelly of suburbia.

To reinforce this, none of the girls are actively sexualised by their own accord, only by the men. In Marieme’s later endeavours, working as drug mule for local gang boss Abou (Djibril Gueye), she is sporting a blonde wig, make-up, high heels and a tight red dress, in direct contrast to her jeans and t-shirts from before. She also straps her chest down and braids her hair tightly to make her appearance more masculine when she moves in with two male flatmates and looks after a prostitute in Abou’s employ.

To take this as a shot at misogyny or men in general is your wont but the interpretation by this writer is not so drastic, instead this is a bold statement to make and Sciamma does this without overt histrionics, putting the women in control of their relationships and ultimately their own destinies. In that respect portraying the girls as real strong characters makes for a refreshing change and the stereotypes are only found in their cultural setting.

Unable to find any black actresses in stage schools and casting agencies, Sciamma found her cast in the streets of Paris. This was a gamble that paid off as the group chemistry of the principal players is undeniably genuine and their behaviour doesn’t feel affected. Karidja Touré puts forth a tremendous showing for herself with this debut, her naturally kind face suiting the scenes where Marieme regrets her actions whilst adding a sense of pathos to her later tougher persona.

If this is the end of an unofficial “coming of age” trilogy then Sciamma brings it to a close with a sublime and forthright final chapter in Girlhood. It may cover some well trodden ground but does so leaving some fresh new prints in its wake, taking some mighty strides forward for minorities in cinema.