As a mother of 11 year old twin girls, I was slightly less than jazzed to watch a coming of age movie about girls growing up. I had trepidations of what I would see, what I would hear that girls are talking about these days and hearing from the world around them- about their worth, their place in society, and their opportunities in said society. Not only did Girlhood inform me, it challenged me, and definitely entertained me.
Set in France, with French subtitles, Girlhood centers on the story of one particular girl, Marieme (played effortlessly by Karidja Toure), and the people that surround her. She lives in a working class suburb of Paris with her two younger sisters, an older brother, and their mother, who works nights as a housekeeper. She is struggling in school, hoping to go to high school, but her counselor tells her she would basically be better off in a vocational school so she could learn a trade, and probably end up also working nights as a housekeeper. She says to the counselor, “I want to be like others. Normal.” To which the counselor replies, “It’s too late for that.” OUCH.
Marieme definitely does not want to grow up and be her mother, but doesn’t yet know what other opportunities are open to her.
But, before all that, we meet her and some friends -all girls- in the opening scene, playing a game of night football. They are all dressed in pads and uniforms, and are basically kicking each other’s asses like the badass girls they are. However, after the game, all the girls from both teams hug, laugh, and talk with each other, walking off the field with their arms around each other. As they are walking home, probably 20-25 girls, again still talking, laughing, yelling, jostling with each other, they come across a group of boys hanging out outside an apartment building. Immediately the girls are quiet, not making a single peep as they walk past these boys. It is such a powerful scene, transitioning from Girl Power, we are HAPPY, we love each other and we support each other, to assuming an air of deference when they see the boys. Is this a metaphor for how girls are in society, at this tender age of 13-15? Or what they think society expects of them?
Marieme meets up with three “bad” girls outside of school, who invite her to ditch with them and go to Paris for the day (sooooo not the same as going to the record store like I did). And thus begins a downward spiral for Marieme, as dejected and wayward as she is, not knowing where she belongs and what the future holds for her.
As I watched this film, with scene after scene of the girls posturing on the Metro, threatening to fight another group of girls who looked at them wrong, bullying a shop girl who was giving them all the stink eye— seeing all of the scenes of teenaged misbehavin’, I was reminded so much of Catherine Hardwicke’s Thirteen from 2003 (WARNING: do NOT watch this movie if your daughter is thirteen. Or twelve). Thirteen was way more hardcore, but captured the same ennui of this age- not a kid, not quite an adult, bored working class girls getting into way too much trouble with alcohol and sex. The difference about Girlhood, and really because of the character of Marieme, was that you could feel that this life was just not for this girl. Yes she fought and stole and bullied people, but Toure portrayed Marieme as still an outsider, one who thirsted for a better outcome than fighting and stealing could give her.
Of course there is a boy that Marieme likes- he is a friend of her brother’s and initially does not want to get involved with her, but their burning love and passion for each other won’t let them stay apart. Yes it sounds cliché, but director Céline Sciamma does not let the scenes with the two of them dissolve into rom-com territory, thank goodness. This director had a very light touch that was appreciated; it allowed for nuance and quiet scenes, which helped convey the desperation that Marieme feels. She and her boyfriend have sex, everyone finds out about it, and her brother basically beats the shit out of her for disrespecting the family name. It is sad to know that some girls in France experience the same misogyny and abuse that some do here in the U S of A…
Marieme runs away and begins working for a drug dealer and small time mob boss type figure – but not as a prostitute, as most girls do. She decides to dress down, hide her femininity, and sell drugs like the guys do, which, truth be told, is the most badass feminist thing she could do! She begins to assert herself in these small ways, again quietly, but they are so very powerful for her.
The rest of the film solidifies Marieme’s decision to be her own person- she is not going to let her bad girl crew, or her drug dealer boss, or her bully of a brother, or even her boyfriend (who asks her to marry him, essentially so she can stop being known as a slut) write her story. She emerges as a defiant Girl, who doesn’t have everything figured out, but knows without a doubt that she can rely on herself to figure it out. And that is where this film finds its true power and thankfully breaks from films like Thirteen.
My favorite scene, again a quiet one, depicts Marieme in a diner very late at night, alone. The drug dealer offers her a ride home- she declines. He says “Eh, you’re strong and alone, huh?” and without even looking up, she replies, “Oui.”