Director: Celine Sciamma
Starring: Karidja Toure
In Celine Sciamma's Girlhood, adolescence is not comprised of one story, but many, its protagonist developing not one clear identity, but trying out several to see what sticks. The title (the English language title, at any rate; the French title is Bande de Filles and translates more accurately as "Girl Gang") suggests something universal, but it's really a work of bracing specificity. It's an atypical film by design, as Sciamma set out to make a film about young, black women because such characters are so rarely seen in French films (whether, as a white director, she accurately depicts the experience of black women of a certain economic milieu isn't for me to say), but while the experiences that it depicts might not be things that we can all relate to, it is nevertheless made compelling by the film.
At the center of Girlhood is Marieme (Karidja Toure), a teenager living with her single mother, her younger sisters, and her brutal older brother who runs the household with an iron fist while their mother is largely absent in order to work. As the story opens, Marieme is informed that her school performance has severely limited her options going forward and that, though she desperately wants to go to the next level of education, it's not going to be possible. Dejected, she leaves the school and immediately encounters three girls - Lady (Assa Sylla), Adiatou (Lindsay Karamoh), and Fily (Marietou Toure) - who invite her to join them on a sojourn to Paris. Although she initially turns them down, after realizing that their gang is affiliated with a gang of boys that includes Ismael (Idrissa Diabate), on whom she has a crush, she decides to join them after all. Soon enough she is fully in with them, her shyness transforming into the kind of toughness that allows her to intimidate others enough to rob them and, later, to win a fight with a girl in order to avenge Lady's honor after she loses a fight of her own.
Firmly bonded with her friends and poised to become the de facto leader of the gang, whose ranks expand following her victory in the fight, circumstances align so that the gang begins to seem like a dead end. Feeling as though she has no other alternative and needing to get out from under the thumb of her brother, Mariem accepts the offer to work for someone whom her friends warn will force her into prostitution. It doesn't quite go that way, but it does usher in a new phase and a new kind of personal identity for Marieme, who begins to favor an ambiguous appearance (save when she's dressed up to deal drugs) and whose sexuality appears to become somewhat ambiguous as well. Though she's still involved with Ismael for a time, the film begins to suggest that her sexuality is more fluid. As the film approaches its end, and Marieme sheds her latest identity and tries to find herself a new situation, it is unclear what she will do and who she will try to become next.
Written and directed by Sciamma, Girlhood is, in general, a really solid film. Its first two acts, as Marieme becomes a member of the gang and then begins to step in as its leader, are really engrossing. In particular, Sciamma does an excellent job at subtly exploring the dynamics between the four friends and at revealing the inner life of Marieme without explicitly spelling everything out. There's a moment, midway through the film, when Marieme watches Adiatou and Fily interact with another young woman and afterwards they explain to her that the other girl was their "fourth" before she had a baby. Without stating it outright, Sciamma and Toure make it clear that this is the fissure that will allow for Marieme's break from the group, because though she's genuinely bonded with the three other women, she's forced to face the fact that in these circumstances each of them is replaceable, that each plays a role in the dynamic that must at all times be filled. Marieme was welcomed into the gang because they lost their fourth; when they lose her, someone else will come in to take her place. That said, the relationship that she develops with the three other girls seems genuine - it's circumstance that makes those relationships transitory.
As fascinating as much of the film is, the final act is somewhat frustrating for how increasingly opaque it becomes. While the film is largely about identity and its shifting nature, and perhaps that Marieme specifically is unknowable at this stage in her life because she hasn't fully developed an idea of who she wants to be, the story becomes increasingly closed off during its finale. While Marieme's life during her time with the gang (and her adopted identity as "Vic") is portrayed in a way that is clear and easy to follow, the period of her life post-gang is much less so. It's not a big thing in the grand scheme of the film, especially when Toure's performance is so commanding through each phase, but the issue is there. All told, though, Girlhood is a really good film and hopefully its success will help other stories like it get made in France (and elsewhere).