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Girlhood (2015)
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by Jay Seaver

"A great look at girls who get overlooked."
5 stars

"Girlhood" opens with French teenagers playing American football until the field lights go off, presumably after the teams playing le foot are done with it. Most, if not all, of these girls are black, immigrants or the children of such, and maybe considered not REALLY French by many of the people around them. So they wind up in this isolated world seemingly surrounded by France on all sides, trying to carve their own space as best they can, hopefully as well as the film itself does.

The girls peel off from the group until only Marieme (Karidja Toure) is left; she flirts with Ismael (Idrissa Diabaté) and then heads up to the apartment where her family lives. Though her mother Asma (Binta Diop) is the one holding down a job, older brother Djibril (Cyril Mendy) rules the home like a tyrant, and Marieme warns her developing younger sister to wear lose clothing when he's around. Though she wants more, she is told that she does not qualify for high school, and as she gets that disappointing news, she meets Lady (Assa Sylla) and her friends Adiatou (Lindsay Karamoh) and Fily (Marietou Toure). They take her along for shoplifting, parties, and the occasional fight, and it may be the first time that anyone has fully accepted her.

It's a hell of a thing to be told at 16 that you are more or less relegated to a second-class life, and Marieme meeting Lady and company at that moment can seem like either conformation that she belongs with the gangs and lowlifes or an immediate counter to the schools' assessment - they see value in her even if the rest of the world doesn't. That is, in general, where the first one or two of the film's four acts spends most of its time, simply showing these girls as enthusiastic, figuring out that they have power as women, especially when they band together. There's not necessarily much plot in the early going as the audience gets to know Marieme and her new friends, and not just them specifically. It's about getting used to how teenage girls chatter and obsess, something that can seem like an annoying din to outsiders but is not so strange once one has acclimated.

The part of the movie that is immersion into the lives of black teenage girls never really stops, but as the film goes on, it also involves getting deeper into the parts where they seem especially vulnerable and following Marieme down. There's an arc to the story that makes it hers, but it also remains universal as the joy at her being able to claim her womanhood and show initiative because of the support of the group meets a hard wall in the men who aren't nearly so comfortable with it. Writer/director Céline Sciamma communicates how cyclical this can be in ways that are both obvious (Marieme meets the girl she more or less replaced in the group) and less so.

For instance, when that younger sister reappears later, she's wearing the same blue that became the dominant color in Marieme's wardrobe after she met Lady, which certainly reinforces the potential for a repeat of Marieme's path, which has by then become a rather mixed bag. Sciamma and her crew make good use of urban spaces, pointedly highlighting the class divide while still giving Marieme and friends room to move around, and uses costuming in a similar way. She also does a very impressive job of breaking the film into its for distinct stages so that it feels both continuous and able to jump forward as need be.

And through it all, there are these impressive girls, whether one talks about the actresses or the characters. Top of the list is Karidja Toure, at the center of just about every scene as Marieme, and if she's one of the young actresses Sciamma pulled off the street, that's one heck of a coup. She's terrifically natural in front of the camera and manages to keep a reminder of the girl from the start who was all good intentions even when circumstances harden her somewhat later, and she's got a way of not letting indecision seem to linger. She's matched by Assa Sylla as Lady, a fierce mentor from the start and clearly the person Marieme aspires to become. That fierceness transmutes to humiliation at one point, and is a credit to Sylla that this doesn't cause the audience to lose respect for Lady even as it opens the door for Marieme to push further. On the other side, Cyril Mendy cuts am impressively nasty figure as Djibril, a perfect example of what dangerous figures men can be in the lives of girls like this.

For all that there are some pretty scary guys in these girls' lives, though, Sciamma's look at girlhood is more separate from the male of the species than in opposition. Instead, it looks at a common experience that can be marginalized, with this sometimes being especially true in France (although no place in the world is truly devoid of that situation). It's got the capacity to be engaging for anyone who watches it, though, whether they're seeing their own life or discovering that of others.

link directly to this review at http://www.efilmcritic.com/review.php?movie=26856&reviewer=371
originally posted: 05/26/15 11:29:19
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2014 Cannes Film Festival For more in the 2014 Cannes Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2014 London Film Festival For more in the 2014 London Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2014 Toronto International Film Festival For more in the 2014 Toronto International Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2014 AFI Fest For more in the 2014 AFI Fest series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2015 Sundance Film Festival For more in the 2015 Sundance Film Festival series, click here.

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USA
  30-Jan-2015 (NR)
  DVD: 19-May-2015

UK
  N/A

Australia
  30-Jan-2015
  DVD: 19-May-2015


Directed by
  Celine Sciamma

Written by
  Celine Sciamma

Cast
  Tatiana Rojo
  Rabah Nait Oufella
  Karidja Touré
  Diabate Idrissa



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