Girlhood review: good girl gone mauvaise

A black teenager finds true friendship when she falls in with the ‘wrong’ crowd in this energising French drama set amid the Paris banlieues

Film Title: Girlhood

Director: Céline Sciamma

Starring: Karidja Touré, Assa Sylla, Lindsay Karamoh, Mariétou Touré, Idrissa Diabaté, Simina Soumare, Cyril Mendy

Genre: Drama

Running Time: 113 min

Thu, May 7, 2015, 22:00

   

The French title of this energising film from Céline Sciamma (director of Water Lilies and Tomboy) is the less over-reaching Bande de filles. It may be pure coincidence that, rather than venturing Gang of Girls, the producers have coined a title that gestures towards an English-language release that premiered a few weeks before their own film.

Whatever the process was, Girlhood is destined to be set beside Richard Linklater’s Oscar-nominated Boyhood. It shouldn’t need to be said that the films are very different beasts. The American project may be soaked in white middle-class discontents, but Linklater was, at least, pretending to construct a universal coming-of-age fable. Like the recent Irish film I Used to Live Here, Sciamma’s piece is more concerned with the particular.

The story is set among young women of African descent on the outskirts of Paris. Sciamma pulls apart the singular concerns of the community, points fingers at structural problems and, ultimately, happens upon a commonly told story. In the particular lies the universal.

The incandescent Karidja Touré plays Marieme, a polite, clever girl living with her aggressive, possessive brother and almost invisible, work- depleted mother.

Early on we learn that Marieme has not achieved sufficiently strong grades to progress to the “high school” and will be directed towards a vocational course. One needn’t be an expert in the French educational system to conclude that one route from the ghetto has just been shut off.

Marieme falls in with a group of tough girls – not quite a gang – who pump up her ego and introduce her to dangerous escapes. It’s an old story. As long ago as the 1950s, when the phrase “juvenile delinquent” was ubiquitous, the cinemas were awash with good girls and boys falling foul of dangerous influences in leather jackets.

Those more censorious films were always half in love with the glamour of the outlaw life. Girlhood is equally shameless in its embrace of the funky comradeship that characterises the girls’ relationship. When Christmas looms, we will surely remember the team’s lip-synch to Rihanna’s Diamonds as one of the year’s most joyous scenes. Dressed in shoplifted clothes that still carry the security devices, Marieme and her chums bump and grind their way to a celebration of the impermanent now.

We get a sense of how brief Marieme’s release may be when the girls meet a former member of the crew who is now strolling around (happily, it should be said) with a baby. The implication is that the crew is a permanent but ever- changing entity that loses members to parenthood and gains recruits from domestic exclusion.

When Marieme is eventually forced in another direction, Girlhood loses a good deal of its steam. There are still disconcerting urgencies in the later sections: the only time the lead characters encounter white people in congress is at a bourgeois party where they are selling drugs. But the closing act finds Marieme drifting too far from the warm personality we encountered in the opening scenes. People change. Inequality grinds away at decency. Nonetheless, the film doesn’t satisfactorily sell its lead character’s eventual descent.

For all that, Girlhood sparkles with brash energy and bravura film-making. Crystel Fournier’s mobile camera gets to the grit of the brutalist architecture and the unruly chaos of youthful interaction. The film is also at home with startling set-pieces, such as that Rihanna number and an opening sequence that finds the young women playing (of all things) American football.

There are awful stories in here. But such scenes speak optimistically to the power of friendship and, for that matter, of girlhood itself. Maybe the English-language title will do after all.