The most talked-about film of 2014 so far has been Richard Linklater’s opus of adolescence, Boyhood. Unfortunately, the buzz surrounding it could have a negative effect on Girlhood, which despite its titular commonality, is a very different beast of a film. Bold and beautiful, filled with pain and pleasure, and featuring a throbbing soundtrack and propulsive energy, Celine Sciamma’s drama has also been a festival darling.
Unlike Boyhood, which focuses on the coming-of-age of a blonde white boy who is aimless and filled with angst, Girlhood is about a black teenage girl in France, fighting with her own identity and yearning to break free. It is an invigorating slice of life that feels much more specific, urgent and relatable, and it may even be finer than Boyhood.
Sciamma’s drama focuses on Marieme (Karidja Touré), a shy schoolgirl who initially has more boyish interests. (In the film’s rather radical opening scene, the first activity of female bonding we see is an aggressive game of football.) Marieme lives with her younger sisters, who look up to her, and her older brother Djibril (Cyril Mendy), the master of the household who they all fear. Marieme’s father is absent, while her mother works cleaning a hotel and is often not home.
One day, Marieme tries to blend in with the cool kids. She joins up with a trio of popular girls, who ask her to tag along on a spontaneous trip to Paris. The group, led by the feisty, stubborn Lady (Assa Sylla), don’t think much of Marieme at the start, but the teen slowly shifts her way into the other girls’ interests – shopping, drinking pop and singing pop music. This soon becomes shoplifting dresses, drinking booze and singing more pop music. Marieme is initially interested in going to high school, but her studies and career aspirations soon take a backseat to weekends frolicking around town with her posse of protectors. She grows especially close with Fily, played by Marietou Toure, the member of the gang who provides sly comic relief. Marieme’s first victory, though is getting a necklace from Lady with the name “Vic,” which will serve as a reminder of the triumphs of liberty and control she attains throughout the film.
In that hollow space between childhood and adulthood where Girlhood is set, Marieme tries to figure out her place. Unlike Sciamma’s earlier dramas, Water Lilies and Tomboy, which focused on LGBT themes, this film looks at a young woman exploring the circumstances of being a black girl in a white society. There are two rumbles in the scrapyard between the black gang of girlfriends and their lighter-skinned rivals. Marieme and company also weave their straight hair, apply lipstick and wear leather jackets and jeans, in a way to accentuate both their blossoming bodies and a desire to look more like the common French teenager.
However, although the threat of a dominant patriarchy is present, it does not overwhelm Marieme’s journey. Beyond the rough moments with Djibril and an uncomfortable near-assault from an older man that she manages to avoid, the difficulties of growing up as a girl are gently nudged into the story. After that opening football game, when Marieme and her cohorts chatter away into the night – their speaking overlaps, so that it is besides the point to put subtitles at the bottom of the screen – their entrance into an apartment complex filled with men instantly degrades the group to a hard silence. (They are literally girls, interrupted.) These moments are startling, but happen infrequently enough as not to overwhelm the film’s depiction of gender as one that suppresses feminine freedom and sisterhood.
Instead, Girlhood achieves its most intoxicating power from the bonding moments between Marieme and her three friends. In the middle third, when the group’s chemistry is at its most dazzling, their reactions are so naturally jovial and spontaneous that one wonders if Sciamma let the actors improvise these moments. Their departures into more laid-back activities like mini-golf and hotel parties have colorful dialogue and humor. (One sequence, an electric lip-sync rendition among the four girls of Rihanna’s Diamonds, turns that song into an anthem of liberty and female bonding.)
As Marieme, Touré is masterful, giving an all-encompassing performance – an imperative, since she appears in virtually every scene. She emits a deep vulnerability that does not elude the character as she grows into her own woman. The actor sometimes returns to her default face, one wounded by pain and circumstance, when her dreams are crushed. However, Touré also shows a stunning range, embracing the same free-spirited eccentricity of her female pals and, later, a sterling control over boyfriend Ismael, played by Idrissa Diabate. Crystel Fournier’s outstanding camerawork often points toward Marieme’s feet, as a way to track the protagonist’s confidence as she grows up and finds (and loses) her footing.
Whereas Mason from Boyhood often feels more like a projection of the director than its star, Touré owns Marieme’s humility and aggression. She is a defiant character, but not an aggressive one. Her victories above the people around her are small but symbolic – she initiates the scene where she loses her virginity, for instance. Although Marieme’s diminished social status hovers above her, it rarely limits her pursuit for happiness. She wants to transcend her socioeconomic circumstances; so does Sciamma, who moves the story along quickly and gracefully, with a sense of fluidity that other films about underprivileged youths would avoid.
Girlhood often moves between quiet and loud moments, offering the space to experience the glow of Marieme’s bustling youth alongside its bruised qualities. Between the installments of adolescent fun and fury, Sciamma cuts to black and plays a throbbing electronic score. The music is a exciting expression of the changes occurring to our protagonist between the chapters of her life we witness. While Boyhood’s song selections were nostalgia trips, Girlhood‘s are a more forceful representation of character, the pop and hip-hop infused soundtrack an extension of the character’s thriving youth. It is this intoxicating volume and energy, aided by Toure’s deep, hypnotic, tour-de-force performance, which catapults Sciamma’s film above Linklater’s and into one of the best films ever made about that mysterious space between being a girl and being a woman.
Girlhood is a blast of oxygen to the coming-of-age genre, with bold direction and a sublime turn from actor Karidja Touré.