Her heroine, Marieme (Karidja Touré) is shown to develop through her timid formative years into the beginnings of adulthood over the course of our time with her. She confronts all of the social pressures encountered by a female teenager with the added hindrance of being a black girl in a society designed for white people. However, she is able to grow and confront these difficult phases of her maturation through the friendship she develops with a female trio, fronted by the sassy, glamorous, no nonsense Lady, who takes Marieme under her wing.
“Open casting calls [in the streets of Paris and its working-class suburbs] gave us the chance to meet hundreds of young women in situation – in the streets, shopping malls and fairgrounds” according to the filmmakers. It is therefore a remarkably precise performance from debutant Karidja Touré, she is magnetic in a demanding role that requires her to appear in every scene of the film. She manages to compartmentalise the various stages of girlhood which represent her growth, while director Céline Sciamma ensures the transitions appear almost seamless across the whole. Marieme spends most of the beginning of the film sour-faced, stony and trapped. As her horizons expand and she begins to smile and enjoy herself for a while, the screen lights up. Perhaps it is Karidja’s cinematic naivety, but her every expression is beyond believable, you forget she is acting. This is no fluke; her director repeatedly described her as “so solid” and praised her hard work. Nominated for the César Award for Most Promising Actress, her follow-up cannot come too soon.
This is an all-black cast, in France, with subtitles. The director told Close-Up Film in reference to titular and thematic comparisons with Boyhood, “[Linklater] stresses that the universal character is the middle class white boy, which is true. And we stress the individual character should be a 16-year old black girl from the French suburbs”. In this way, Girlhood is something of a polemic challenge, not towards its ‘brother’ film, to which the ties are entirely coincidental, but towards our conception of what kind of stories need to be told. The ‘hood’ to which the title also refers contains both male and female gang culture, but it is the journey of Marieme’s inception into Lady’s gang that is the focus. The masculine gang culture to which hours of screen time has been dedicated lurks both literally and metaphorically in the shadows, or more poignantly, off-screen altogether. The femmes foursome tread the line between celebrating their friendship and the bonds of belonging, the violence of confrontational ‘macho’ playground culture and stealing to fund their day trips.
There is a wonderful scene where the four girls decide to play crazy golf. It is so refreshing to see a comic scene relying purely on physicality, character interplay and natural timing to achieve its’ laughter. No innuendo, swearing or drink and drugs were involved in a scene that provided more hilarity than most of the ‘lad’, boys on tour, lowest-common-denominator blockbusters that have saturated cinema over the past five years or so, combined.
Girlhood is about life, portrayed with such reality that you might be forgiven for thinking you had stumbled into a documentary. Marieme faces socio-political barriers that have huge implications for her life choices and usually for the worse. However, there is plenty of joy to be found; in her forays into forbidden love, travelling to Paris and the Rihanna dream sequence, the film does not just dole out grim realities to be depressed by.
The lead actresses are attractive and fun, but not idealised. The film celebrates their femininity and their attempts to have freedom in a context that seems designed to entrap. It champions their struggle, without condoning every method. There is one sympathetic male character and his representation in the context of the methodology of the film is perhaps equally significant in the discussion of gender representation.
Céline Sciamma creates a female platform for feminine issues without having an agenda or mounting a soapbox. She summed it up brilliantly when she explained: “Men can actually have the experience of being a girl for two hours. For all our [lives] … [women] have had the experience of men on screen – so it’s a good thing that you can do the same.” It is an open invitation and one well worth accepting.