Girlhood, Celine Sciamma’s third feature, is a majestic piece of work that refuses to moralise or judge its characters whilst giving them plenty of breathing space to find their feet as human beings. If I speak of Girlhood‘s cast as if they are real people, that’s because they feel like it. These are characters that exist outside of the frame, outside of the demands of a plot and a resolution. Girlhood ends on a very ambiguous note, but we are left with a definite sense that somewhere out there, our protagonist Marieme/Vic (she changes her name early on) is still about, maybe still trying to find her way in life, perhaps still living in one of Paris’ banlieues amidst troubled circumstances, or maybe, just maybe she’s found her way out by now, as made good use of her intelligence and sharpness. I can only hope.
After being told she’s not ‘good’ enough for high school, Vic starts to hang out with a group of girls who initially seem quite tough and cool, in the teenage sense of the word. This relationship between Vic and her friends forms the bedrock of Girlhood. In a more traditional film, we may expect to see these girls form a ‘bad’ influence on Vic, taking her down a clichéd and hackneyed road into crime and drugs or something or other; what happens instead is that they form an especially tight bond with each other, a sense of friendship and belonging that instils a great sense of hope into Girlhood. They do engage in a fair bit of teenage misbehaviour – shoplifting and suchlike – but all for a good cause as it turns out: when the girls illicitly rent a hotel room for a night, they do so for the express purpose of simply letting loose and having fun with each other. The scene culminates in a wonderful moment where all four of them are singing along to Rihanna’s Diamonds, bathed in neon-blue light; nothing else matters except the friendship of four people together, enjoying nothing but each other’s company.
Importantly, Celine Sciamma avoids turning Girlhood into a grimy-looking social realist piece of work, in which the Parisian banlieues are little more than misery traps. That they are rife with dangerous aspects – from abusive family members to manipulative, predatory drug dealers – simply serves to strengthen Girlhood‘s freely stylised filmic language; this isn’t a picture that’s afraid to insert scenes or shots that are freely aesthetic or ‘beautiful’ in a more traditional sense. What is crucial is that these moments serve a very direct purpose in the narrative and characterisation of its central actors. When Vic visits her boyfriend Ismael in the night and orders him to undress, the camera lingers on his body and on the moody lighting. The events that occur in the film are naturalistic and gritty, but the way the images are composed and photographed is clean and expressionistic. These visual expressions are in turn always used to strengthen or investigate the film’s central idea: how do our adolescent friendships effect our identity and lifestyle?
Because ultimately, that’s what Girlhood is about. It investigates this one central idea in one girl’s life, and it does so without ever resorting to polemic or preaching. The film is heavily aware of the political, social, and economic implications of Vic’s life. She is after all, a black teenage woman living on the outskirts of Paris in a downtrodden neighbourhood with a group of siblings and a single mother who is almost entirely absent from the film due to the demands of her minimum-wage job. Life prospects aren’t great out here. However, to be judgemental, blandly pessimistic, or overtly in-your-face about Vic’s life would have ruined the film’s power. The politics is there in Girlhood, but in the background. We the audience are trusted to understand the inner logic of the film’s characters, that our choices as people nearly always come from our environment. This background subtly affects Vic throughout, and also affects her relationship with her friends: these girls just wanna have fun, but real life won’t let them, making the latter stages of the film difficult to watch simply because we’ve come to care about these people and their friendship so much.
None of this of course would have been possible were it not for some particularly impressive performances by the mostly non-professional cast. Karidja Toure has the most to do in her leading role, and she rises to the challenge like an experienced pro, but equal credit ought to go to Assa Sylla, Lindsay Karamoh, and Marietou Toure, the girls who play Lady, Adiatou, and Fily, Vic’s friends, respectively.
Celine Sciamma’s previous two films have both focused too on adolescent coming-of-age stories from a female perspective. Whilst I’ve not seen 2011’s Tomboy, her first feature film Water Lilies was also a strong drama, about an awakening sexuality between three girls. As solid as Water Lilies was, Girlhood is simply a huge step forward. Everything about Sciamma’s filmmaking is much more confident, clear, and mature, from the storytelling and the performances, to the cinematography and the use of music. Girlhood is easily one of the films of the year, and definitely a challenger to a certain similarly-named film that was one of my favourite films of last year too.