A searing, moving slice of life reality piece, this is a French coming of age tale.
Marieme is a good girl – young, attractive and seemingly with the world at her feet, but her circumstances see her future all but decided. At age 16, she is the eldest of three girls in a single parent family that live in a colourless high-rise apartment complex in a rundown neighbourhood. Their mother, a cleaner, always seems to be working and Marieme is repeatedly set upon by her oppressive older brother, who treats her shabbily. She is keen to continue at school, but her poor grades don’t allow it. Now she reaches crisis point. The last thing she wants is a dead end job. Her momentary salvation comes when she meets three free spirited girls, who revel in being bad and breaking the rules. Her whole modus operandi changes as a result of joining their gang. Marieme grows up and grows up quickly, but the question might reasonably be asked, is this for the better?
Her life is still fundamentally controlled by the boys’ law that prevails in her community and what her brother says goes, ill-treatment not withstanding. You see, her brother has the respect of other males in the hood. Determined to break free, Marieme decides upon a different, seemingly far more dangerous option.
Written and directed by Céline Sciamma (Tomboy, Water Lilies), she says the characters themselves sparked the project – the teenage girls she would regularly see hanging out in shopping centres and at train stations. They were always in gangs, loud, lively and dancing. Wanting to delve deeper, Sciamma sought out their blogs. Their profiles reflected the themes at the heart of her ongoing work as a filmmaker: the construction of a feminine identity within the framework of social pressure, restrictions and taboos.
Image and identity are central to Sciamma, anchored in the political reality that is France today. While the narrative tension is fictional, the feel of the movie is absolutely real. That is what makes it so engaging.
Casting took place over four months. At first the casting director scoured the streets of Paris and its working-class suburbs. Open calls gave the filmmakers the chance to meet hundreds of young women in the streets, in shopping malls and at fairgrounds. They were looking for girls with physical charisma and powerful identities. It was essential to compose a group with both strong affinities and contrasts.
Karidja Touré, who was chosen for the part of Marieme, appears in every scene. The difficulty of successfully playing such the character shouldn’t be underestimated because Marieme goes through several changes, multiple stages and must show many faces. She begins as a child, asserts herself as a young woman and then progressively builds virility. Touré does a hell of a job. Her gang mates are roles filled by Assa Sylla, Lindsay Karamoh, and Marietou Touré.
I was somewhat taken aback by how strong an imprint Girlhood made on me. This is powerful storytelling at its gritty best. It is perceptive and layered. Yes, the depths to which one sinks in a situation such as that in which Marieme finds herself could have been trawled even further, but part of the believable profile of the film was the one step back, one step forward approach. Her journey is hardly laid out for her. Rather, she has to make it up as she goes along and inevitably she will make some bad decisions and her choices will have ramifications.
I long to see what Karidja Touré does next, while Céline Sciamma has a fine eye for detail. Rated M, Girlhood scores an 8 out of 10.
Director: Céline Sciamma
Cast: Karidja Touré, Assa Sylla, Lindsay Karamoh and Marietou Touré
Release date: 13 August 2015 (limited)
David Edwards is the editor of The Blurb and a contributor on film and television