I had been looking forward to this one after reading nothing but good reviews, along with the fact that I typically enjoy coming of age movies. In truth I was a little underwhelmed by Girlhood; it’s a good movie, but there was too much of a personal detachment for me which came more from a lack of emotion conveyed on screen rather than me being a British white thirtysomething bloke. If anything it suggests a promising future for its director and stars.
Girlhood follows a few months in the life of a teenage girl who lives in a tower block complex – the sort you would expect to find in any populous city. She is protective of her younger sister, scared of her older brother, and feels trapped by her surroundings and life – the choices, options, and ability to simply live life the way you want to are limited. We see a host of tropes from similar movies or movies set in similar territory – the hoodlums lurking in the shadows, the invisible parents or adult authority, the contrast between the dim, dark housing development and the bright city lights and delights. That’s not to say the film simply rolls out trope after trope – it engages them and acknowledges them as true to life occurrences. With this approach, the film moves in a matter of fact way – nothing seems startling or out of place, but neither is anything shocking or exciting.
Marieme has been told that she cannot continue her schoolwork due to bad grades (or possibly race and class), and facing a bleak future she decides to go against everything she knows and speaks with a bunch of girls who appear to be part of a gang. Initially it is obvious she is out of place, but the girls accept her and she is quickly drawn into a world of theft, dancing, petty fighting, and general chav activity – but also friendship unlike anything she had experienced before. It is during these moments that the movie has its finest moments – the scenes of young women simply loving being round one another and feeling like they can take on the world are among the most exuberant and honest in film. The film attempts to take a darker turn later in the film as Marieme becomes a drug mule, loses her femininity or accentuates it in a deliberately cartoonish manner, and soon loses faith in her current path – she sees no future for herself in this direction and yet cannot accept returning to any past life. For me, the film loses its way in these moments – Marieme becomes a less interesting character, we lose her friendship with Lady, Fily, and Adiatou, and nothing really happens. It’s clear that the viewer is being shown, not for the first time, that even a strong woman will struggle given the poor choices she has ahead of her and we appreciate that there is little Marieme can do to improve her situation.
The problem with Marieme is that, even though she is conflicted, she never truly becomes a fascinating character. There are moments, but not enough for us to sympathise with her – this is also hindered by the fact that for most viewers she repeatedly picks the worst option from the choices she has. It’s an annoyance of seeing potential wasted, of watching someone who is essentially good going nowhere. Karidja Toure is very good in the role, transforming from a meek nobody, to an effervescent girl, to a tired, hopeless woman. Assa Sylla is also strong as Lady – the whole cast in general are good at giving realistic portrayals. Sciamma, whose Water Lillies I enjoyed, gives another complex view of growing up as a girl – the hope, the fear, the love and the despair, and most importantly the friendships. The camera frequently moves in a slow panning motion, keeping the viewer as an outsider who cannot quite grasp the struggles of the character, and there is a heavy reliance on music and light. The soundtrack feels retro but uses modern pop music too, yet it lacks a punch or a hook outside of the obvious Diamonds scene. From an emotional standpoint, I always felt that feelings were skirted or on the fringe – perhaps deliberate, though maybe not. I felt like the friendship was real, but there wasn’t enough to make me laugh or love, scream or cry about. The most upsetting scene was possibly seeing Marieme’s little sister possibly following in her footsteps, but this wasn’t explored further.
In all, this is a film which most viewers will likely enjoy more than I did, but for me it is not up to films such as Stand By Me, Now And Then, or even The Virgin Suicides or Little Women – though perhaps those are not all valid comparisons. A film like this relies on a likable cast and understanding director – both of which are checked boxes here, but they also need poignancy, a certain nostalgic charm or sense of empathy, and that intangible atmosphere which draws us back for repeated viewings and which makes us want to spend more time in the presence of the characters and their world. Girlhood for me doesn’t quite hit all of those notes, and while it is a more grim film than those previously mentioned, it is the lack of emotion which dulls the viewer and keeps us at arm’s length.
Let us know in the comments what you thought of Girlhood!