In the Blog

Review: Girlhood (Bande de filles)

March 12th, 2015     by Jackie Mlotek     Comments

GIRLHOOD: Lady (Assa Sylla) and Marieme/Vic (Karidja Touré) in Céline Sciamma’s GIRLHOOD

In one of my favourite classes I took last year, my professor told us a story about her then toddler aged son. His hair was long and he wore it in a braid, and some of the other kids at the daycare asked him if he was a girl or “why he had long hair like a girl”. He responded sombrely, “There are many ways to be a boy in this world”. I tell this story to everyone I know, and I want this kid to run everything in the world one day.

Girlhood, or Bande de filles, is a gorgeous French film about the many ways to be a girl in this world. Girlhood is about Marieme/Vic (as in “victoire” or victory) a teenage girl who is growing up in France, faced with not many school opportunities, but who meets some new, cool girls that she befriends: Lady, Adiatou, and Fily. Girlhood’s opening scene of an all-girl (American) football team is just the beginning of a film that is a love story to the many relationships girls have with each other in a world that tells girls to cater to the male gaze. Most importantly, the film notes that these relationships are intense, or even violent at times, that they are valid, and incredibly central to growing up and learning about yourself and the world. The opening scene reminds me of Grimes’ Oblivion video, since both play with the idea of women reclaiming and complicating often hostile, male dominated spaces.

Throughout the film, there are some incredible deliveries of the things young girls deal with. After the opening football practice scene, the girls are all in a flurry of excitement walking home together, and suddenly they quiet as young men and boys lurk in the shadows, occasionally yelling things at them, until the girls disperse. Friendships between girls are so often invalidated, stifled, and demeaned under men’s eyes, and this film artfully demonstrates the tension between loving your friends so much (and understandably so), and also always knowing that girls have to go above and beyond to prove their legitimacy as individuals and as friends to onlookers.

Girlhood is also very conscious of race and class. The main cast is comprised of people of colour (POC), which is refreshing and necessary from the sea of whiteness we are often given with Hollywood teen coming of age films. The first time Marieme and the girls go to Paris together and go shopping, a white sales girl follows Marieme around the store, and Lady quickly calls her out on it, and the girls leave triumphantly together. Reclaiming power and taking control happens consistently throughout the film, and the girls are given the space to be fearless and fearful simultaneously.

Marieme, her friends, and her family live in a subsidized housing “project” somewhere near Paris, and the film recognizes the difficulties Mariame and her friends and family experiences because of it - such as Mariame’s mom working late as a cleaner, and her responsibilities for her younger siblings. The film addresses the realities of Mariame’s life, at times at a superficial level, like when the film later falls into clichés of paths that youth living in subsidized housing are thought to fall into. Despite this, the film presents Mariame’s socioeconomic class as a part of her identity that is interwoven throughout her life, and very rarely romanticizes her experiences.

Throughout the film, violence is consistent and on a continuum. The girls fight with each other, with other girls and boys, and with their families. Marieme’s home situation is stressful, as her older brother is abusive and controlling and takes on a patriarchal figure in her family, and Marieme has a lot of responsibility to help out with her 2 younger sisters. The initial group of friends fights with each other and with other girl groups. The violence is uncomfortable, but I think it’s important to critically reflect on whether I was uncomfortable with the violence because it’s violent, or because it is girls perpetrating the violence and girls are not “supposed to be violent”. It’s also difficult because throughout the film it’s clear that those in Mariame’s close social circle value violence as a way to show strength and it even gives Mariame a break from her brother being horribly abusive to her for a short time since he respects violence.

Marieme herself also explores what it means to be a girl. There is no “one way” to be a girl in this film - there’s just a huge outpouring of support for one another that recognizes the realities of being a girl. It’s also realistic in the way that the girls make fun of each other, but it never seems cruel or unwarranted, it’s just an authentically tender representation of how friends are. Marieme explores different ways of dressing and presenting herself, from the way she dresses to binding, and despite backlash because of it, she stands her ground on her choices. Mariame’s femininity and sexuality is entirely her own and she is in control of it, despite very difficult circumstances, which is one of the most powerful representations you can have for other girls watching.

Throughout the film: selfies are taken, dancing in the streets happen, they eat, they hug, they go mini-golfing, and they cry, they wait around, they fight. They live. It’s a beautiful and accurate depiction of the raw emotions that you feel as a teenager.

It is so good to see on film depictions of teenage girls supporting one another and looking after themselves. And, also getting validation that it is okay to want to be liked, to be tough, to be soft, and understanding that all these things happen simultaneously.

GIRLHOOD_1: (L to R) Lady (Assa Sylla), Adiatou (Lindsay Karamoh), Marieme/Vic (Karidja Touré) and Fily (Mariétou Touré) sing and dance to Rihanna’s “Diamonds” in Céline Sciamma’s GIRLHOOD

Overall, the entire movie is visually beautiful, the characters memorable, and the soundtrack incredible. One particularly life-restoring scene, that is a turning point for Mariame, is when Marieme, Lady, Adiatou, and Fily are all dressed up and dancing and singing to “Diamonds” in a hotel room they get for a night. When I saw it for the first time, I had chills. It is so carefree and powerful. Being a teenage girl holds a very unique and unstoppable kind of force and power. While at the hotel, Marieme’s brother calls her, and Lady, serious and up to her neck in bubbles in the bath, insists she turn her phone off. To Marieme she says, “You have to do what you want. Say it.” And she insists Marieme repeats it, which she does. And Lady is right. Girls need to do what they want, on their own terms, and Girlhood shows just how important that is.

For folks in Toronto, go see Girlhood at the TIFF Bell Lightbox, starting February 27.

For folks in Canada and the US, check out if there is a screening near you!

Tags: film, race, sexuality, violence, youth

« Mid-Week Round Up: March 11

Catcall for What? »