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Girlhood Review: An Unflinching And Compelling Coming-Of-Age Story

Wednesday 27 May 2015
Words Ailis Mara

There are two gloriously realised things that help anchor Sciamma’s free-verse exploration of adolescent longing, transforming what might have been meandering ennui into something potent and startlingly perceptive: The first is the film’s chill-wave, M83-esque score by French producer Jean-Baptiste de Laubier aka Para One, which tremolos and oscillates with shifting electro-patter like Brian Eno doing Steve Reich’s ‘Different Trains’. It’s a jarringly warm and beguiling construction that softens Sciamma’s deliberately sparse signposting and lends Girlhood its emotional focus.


The second is the quite extraordinary performance from Karidja Touré who plays the film’s protagonist Marieme. Touré, whose stellar trajectory has gone from student to César Award nominee, was scouted by Sciamma’s casting agent in an amusement park. “I think they did this because there aren’t a lot of black actors in Paris and that’s how you find them” she recalls. Even more incredibly, Touré is part of a whole ensemble of first time actors who make up Girlhood’s central cohort.

“The group drink, dance, fight,

and shoplift their way to friendship”

Sciamma’s film has been widely celebrated for depicting black, female teenagers defiantly and painfully carving out their own place in their society in an empowering and respectful manner. In other words, a rarity, and one that not only surpasses Alison Bechdel’s oft-impractical yet meaningful test by a country mile (it requires a film to satisfy gender equality by having at least two women in it who talk to each other about something besides a man), but does so without any hint of smug agenda-ising.

The film follows Marieme, a sixteen year old who lives with her two younger sisters, older brother, and mother in the Parisian suburbs, and who falls in with an all-female gang led by the charismatic Lady (Sylla). The group drink, dance, fight, and shoplift their way to friendship, the existing three members having found in Marieme a replacement for their fourth, who it transpires fell pregnant and, in more ways than one, moved on. In turn, Marieme, looking to assert herself in a fatherless world in which she plays mother to her two siblings welcomes and endures a brief initiation period as the girls test her mettle, before taking an earned place by their sides.

“Kids’ foolhardy decisions are one of life’s inalienable certainties”

Sylla too is great here as their de facto leader, persuasively able as she is to wither and disarm with a mere glance one moment and be awkwardly shy and embarrassed the next. One early scene has her barking questions at Marieme with that recognisably hateful and impressive swagger of a playground bully, while a later scene has her smiling bashfully as the object of a gentle ribbing from her pals as they reveal Lady’s real name as the more gentle and feminine Sophia.

But Girlhood is most concerned about transformation, and the film is remarkably and refreshingly unconcerned with judging Marieme. When her hotel-maid mother’s boss suggests Marieme take up some Summer work, we see the previously submissive teenager apply the aggression she’s learned from Lady, using it as a key to access what she wants and full-on threaten her into withdrawing her offer.

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Kids’ foolhardy decisions are one of life’s inalienable certainties, but to see the fragility of a young girl navigating her way through life up close is indeed shocking and not a little sad. But the affecting complexity of enduring friendship and loyalty, as depicted in what is undoubtedly the film’s centrepiece – all four girls dancing and lip-synching through the entirety of Rihanna’s Diamonds, bathed in Besson neon-blue as the girls successively join one another in the middle of their hotel room – is movingly and sensitively retold by Sciamma, exquisitely shot by cinematographer Crystal Fournier, and delivered through convincing, note-perfect performances by its inexperienced yet exceedingly talented young cast.


Cineworld shows a host of the latest films across the country, find out where you can see Girlhood today right here.