"Girlhood" is a stylistic but gritty slice-of-life exploration of what it means to be a teenage girl
According to PIAF Lotterywest Film Festival program manager, Tom Vincent, writer-director Céline Sciamma got the idea for this film when she walked pass a group of black teenage girls on the streets of Paris. In an interview with Cineeuropa, Sciamma described the girls she observed to have “such energy, such intelligence, such humour, such charisma, even though they don’t get to dream a lot and their country does not give them a vision of what they could become or do”. Said observation ultimately becomes the main theme that courses through the veins of this film, encapsulated by Girlhood’s lead protagonist, Marieme (capably portrayed by Karidja Touré). The film follows Marieme - struggling with school, the tribulations of adolescence, and an oppressive family life – as she encounters a group of free-spirited girls and gets initiated into their whirlwind way of life.
The film’s original French title, “Bande le filles”, literally translates to “a Gang of Girls”, which I thought would have been a better representation of the film. However, with its official English-language title being Girlhood, one could not help but draw comparisons – albeit based on the surface similarity of their titles – between this film and recent Best Picture Oscar loser, Richard Linklater’s twelve-year epic Boyhood. In a way, it can be argued that Girlhood is the spiritual successor to Boyhood (come to think of it, both films would make the perfect double-feature for a movie night). While the latter is a naturalistic, time-spanning examination of a boy’s journey through adolescence that is entrenched in nostalgia; Girlhood is instead a stylistic but gritty slice-of-life exploration of what it means to be a teenage girl. Like Boyhood, Sciamma manages to address something universal (adolescence) by focusing on something specific (Marieme's story) with this film.
From its captivating opening scene, Girlhood exudes a certain energy that is congruent its youthful characters. While it deals with heavy emotional and social issues, Sciamma manages to imbue the film with electric jolts of unadulterated joy of being a teenager, bolstered by its talented cast. While Touré is heartbreaking and subtle as focal character Marieme, her performance is elevated by her interactions with the supporting cast, a "gang" of three girls, led by the seemingly fearless Lady (a magnetic portrayal by Assa Sylla), who are so raw and genuine in their effervescence that it is easy to see how Marieme becomes so enamoured with their way of life.
Sciamma and cinematographer Crystel Fournier (who has worked with Sciamma on her previous films, Tomboy [which you can currently stream on SBS On Demand for free!] and Water Lilies) manages to capture the joys of adolescence as well as the unflinching hardships in life with its vibrant imagery, in which Fournier utilises aesthetics and a colour palette akin to Sofia Coppola's in order to convey the ideas in the film. However, while Coppola's aesthetics often evoke a dream-like imagery, the use of colour in Girlhood is much rooted in the harsh truths of reality.
One of the main triumphs of Girlhood is that it is one of those rare films about teenagers that doesn't patronise or stereotype the very subjects it depicts. While Marieme and her new friends do get into the usual shenanigans that teenagers (in her society) get up to, Sciamma makes sure that we see the motivations behind their actions, and that our takeaway from every scene is more than a knee-jerk "oh, teenagers these days!" reaction. Marieme and her friends all have their own emotional baggage that they carry around with them, and they realise the tough cards they have been dealt with in their lives; but that is what fuels their active rebellion towards accepting the harshness of reality - by fighting to stay as teenagers.
Had it ended 10 minutes earlier, Girlhood would have been a near-perfect, revelatory film: there is a scene towards the end of the film, which features Marieme sharing a moment with her new friends after making a difficult life-altering decision. It is a bittersweet, moving scene, one that would have been a great note to end on, as it compels the audience to contemplate on the themes of the film and the implications of Marieme's decision in a much more engaging way. Unfortunately, Sciamma doesn't let it end there, and decides to play out the consequences of Marieme's decision in the film's final segment instead, eliminating any trace of ambiguity. One of the problems I have with Girlhood's final act is that it feels incongruent with the rest of the film. There is an odd tonal shift in the final storyline, which at times, sails very close to the winds of cliche. It just feels like different movie altogether than everything that came before. But most of all, it just seemed unnecessary: we don't learn anything new about Marieme that we didn't already know, except we are not left to our own imaginations about the consequences of her major decision, of which are heavily implied in the scenes before anyway.
Despite its disappointing final act, Girlhood is a fascinating, energetic-yet-gritty contemplation of friendship, oppression, and female adolescence.