Bursting onto the screen in a blast of buzzing power pop, “Girlhood,” the Cannes Directors' Fortnight opening film from Celine Sciamma (“Water Lilies,” “Tomboy”), is marked from the outset by its energetic embrace of the complexity and contradictions of underprivileged, urban teenage life. An (American) football game is in progress, but the players beneath the pads are all female, mostly black, and speak a slangy colloquial French: they are, as the French title has it, a “Bande des Filles,” a gang of girls from the same notorious Parisian suburbs that spawned “La Haine.” Choosing to locate her story in these drab, socio-economically depressed surroundings and to tell it through the eyes of a young black girl is not only a departure for Sciamma whose previously equally well-observed coming of age tales have played out in mostly white middle class settings, but a risk, and yet it pays off in absolutely triumphant fashion. “Girlhood” is a fascinatingly layered, textured film that manages to be both a lament for sweetness lost and a celebration of wisdom and identity gained, often at the very same moment.
When we first meet 16-year-old Marieme (Karidja Toure), she’s coming home from that football game, one face among a babbling gaggle of girls, who, guided by some sort of group instinct like a flock of birds, fall suddenly silent on the short walk across the courtyard of the flats where they all live. Running the gauntlet of jeers and catcalls from loitering boys, the gang thins out as girls disappear into neighboring flats, until Marieme alone climbs the concrete stairs to her home. It’s a home that is also characterized by opposites: her closeness and protectiveness toward her younger sisters sharply contrasted with her dread of her elder brother Djibril (Cyril Mendy), the leader of a local gang and, in the absence of a father figure, the man of the house. All this is economically evoked and in just a few moments we’re deeply involved with Marieme—it’s an identification that never wavers throughout the rest of the film, even as she begins to make choices we want to protect her from and to learn the kind of lessons that make her stronger, but only in the ghetto sense: harder and meaner. Because Marieme befriends a trio of tough girls, Lady (Assa Sylla), Fily (Marietou Toure) and Adiatou (Lindsay Karamou) and together they form a gang who tangle with other girl gangs and bully other kids out of money so they can party. The first time we see Marieme participate in this sort of activity, her braided hair now flattened, her slouchy tracksuit replaced by a leather jacket, our hearts break a little for the girl she was and the woman she’s becoming, but the compassion Sciamma has for all her characters defies judgment.
Anchored by a brilliant central performance from newcomer Toure, who is fearless in the honesty of her portrayal of the girl’s vulnerability but also her burgeoning ruthlessness, the film manages that rare feat of feeling both specific and universal. So while it is rooted in its place and time, Marieme’s story also takes on a wider resonance, as we watch her not so much come of age as deconstruct and reconstruct herself, several times over—even though her circumstances trap her, she acts with the kind of agency we rarely see female characters display, let alone black female characters, let alone black female teenagers. She vies with the forces around her for power and control over her own identity, each victory nested inside a defeat and vice versa, like when she chooses to lose her virginity to her boyfriend, orders him to undress, positions him as she wishes and wholly owns the event, yet immediately afterward is beaten by her brother for becoming “a slut.” One transformation later, as a dealer for a rival gang, when she’s not awkwardly dolled up in a blond wig and heels to attend the high-class (read: white) parties she supplies, she goes full “Yentl,” taping down her breasts, wearing baggy shirts and hanging with the guys. It’s a moving callback to a scene early on where she advises her sister to wear baggy clothes to hide her maturing body: Marieme, now on the other side of it herself, can see that in this environment, pre-adolescence is a much safer state to be in.
Our only niggle, and perhaps it's less that than an observation, is that the main story kind of runs its course by the end of the second act and the whole third section, where Marieme works for the drug dealer, feels almost like a sequel. That said, it's justified by the moment when we see Marieme at a party full of white people and suddenly remember that oh yeah, there are white people in the world too—“Girlhood” is gently progressive in successfully identifying universal experiences and themes, but unobtrusively locating them in an almost exclusively black environment.
Mostly though, the film just teems with life. The bond between Marieme and the girls may not be forever, but it is strong and meaningful for a time, and it is beautiful, and in one of the many terrific uses of music that pepper the film, they dress up in shoplifted clothes and mime and dance around a hotel room to Rihanna’s “Diamonds,” their real voices, screeching and unabashed, gradually mixing in with the recorded vocals. It's the whole universe of "Girlhood" in a single scene, and, both hugely uplifting and melancholic in its transience, it approaches sublime. [A-]