While its English language title may invite easy comparisons to Richard Linklater’s celebrated opus Boyhood, French filmmaker Celine Sciamma’s coming of age drama Girlhood is far more accurately represented by its native language moniker, Bande des Filles (‘Band of Girls’). Indeed, its depiction of teenage life in the depressed projects of suburban Paris has, tonally speaking, more in common with 2001 TV WWII epic Band of Brothers than Linklater’s sepia-toned account of growing up under the California sun.
Sciamma is unflinching in her depiction of the physical, emotional and sociological warfare of adolescence – specifically, female adolescence – and, through that brutal honesty, effectively rails against those one dimensional stereotypes that have long defined young women on screen; the nerd, the victim, the love interest, the dumb hottie, the girl next door, the slut. In fact, her film can be seen as a visceral celebration of the fact that no flesh and blood girl will ever fit, neatly and uncomplainingly, into any one of these woefully inadequate boxes.
Sciamma lays this fact masterfully bare in Girlhood’s stunning opening sequence, which is as narratively eloquent as it is visually striking. Silhouetted against a darkening sky, a group of shouting, energetic youngsters play a rousing game of American football; with their helmets and pads it’s impossible to define their gender, and a viewer’s initial assumption would likely be that they are male. As the game ends, however, it becomes clear that this is a group of teenage girls, whose banter continues at some volume as they make their jubilant way home… until, that is, they pass a small group of boys and, in unspoken unison, fall into abject silence, casting their eyes downwards as they absorb the cacophony of catcalls that trail in their wake.
The tension between the girls’ vitality and strength of character and the masculine sphere of influence that surrounds them is obvious and immediate, and further explored by the journey of Sciamma’s 16 year old protagonist, Marieme (given excellent life by young actress Karidja Toure). As Marieme attempts to break free from the confines of a life dominated by the men within it, from her abusive brother to the neighbourhood pimps, Sciama mines both the highs and lows of her experience – the simple joy of dancing with abandon, the all-pervasive bleakness of a world without any real prospects – to present a vibrant, multi-faceted character who keeps a firm hand on her own fate. Marieme finds strength and independence not through a love affair but her vibrant female friendships and, while she understands how best to navigate the social system, she never has her identity defined by anyone other than herself. Even as she transforms herself into the confident, feisty Vic, wearing her battle scares as badges of honour, it’s entirely for her own benefit; for her own survival and the chance of a better life for herself.
Of course, the individual experiences of these particular girls are specific to the environment in which they find themselves spending their formative years; their housing project ruled by roaming gangs of opportunistic men looking to score in all possible ways and attempting to exert control over everything in their path. But while it may be extreme, Girlhood’s premise is indicative of the situation young women the world over routinely find themselves in; dictated to and judged by a society that demands they fulfil traditional roles and live up to outdated expectations. And this directly informs the depiction of women and girls on screen; females who are defined and pigeon-holed by either their flaws or their strengths, who can either be pretty or smart, a slut or a virgin, a victim or a lover, a mother or a cold career bitch but never – ever – the hero.
Marieme, however, is entirely different. She is without a doubt the hero of her story, the architect of her own fate and, as she forges her own path, fights her own battles and stands up to those who would seek to keep her in her place, not so much a breath of breath air but a hurricane. As her creator, Sciamma is also something of a revolutionary, adding her voice to a growing number of female filmmakers resolved to depicting the realities of the female experience, and refusing to mould femininity to suit male expectation. Only by championing films like Girlhood, and allowing audiences – and particularly young girls – to see that women on screen can be just as complex, as developed, as interesting and as inspiring as their male counterparts, can we hope to break down the status quo that Marieme is so loudly railing against.
UK Theatrical Release Date: May 8, 2015
This article was originally published by Film Divider