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Film Review | Girlhood

The French contender of the Lux Film Prize is a deeper-than-usual take on the coming of age story, reminding us that long stretches of boredom, doubt, and an attention to sensorial details are a direct part of the experience.

teodor_reljic
Teodor Reljic
10 November 2014, 8:00am
Uncertain journey: a cocktail of poverty and peer pressure spurns Karidja Touré’s Marieme on in this delicate but plodding coming-of-age drama
Uncertain journey: a cocktail of poverty and peer pressure spurns Karidja Touré’s Marieme on in this delicate but plodding coming-of-age drama
It’s good that a cinematic year that has given us a three-hour coming of age epic by the name of Boyhood has also yielded to a trimmer and unlikely companion piece in Girlhood – directed by Céline Sciamma and in the running for this year’s Lux Film Prize, the European Union’s response to the Oscars, as it were.

For if Richard Linklater’s film is to be commended for its honest – if wilfully plodding – portrayal of a young boy’s steps towards maturity, filmed in ‘real time’ for added effect, it remains a film centrally about the male experience.

By contrast, Sciamma’s film is welcome not only because it provides necessary balance alongside Linklater’s films. It also widens its focus away from one individual journey to allow for a more communal scope, as our protagonist Marieme (Karidja Touré) navigates the fringes of the contemporary Parisian slums.

(And to be perfectly fair, the semantic comparison to Linklater’s film is largely enabled by the English-language translation of the title, given that the original is ‘Bande des Filles’, which emphasises the youthful camaraderie that Sciamma’s film explores, and problematises).

Oppressed by her family setting, dead-end school prospects and the bullish masculine hold over the neighbourhood, Marieme sees hope for a new life after meeting a group of three free-spirited girls – ‘Lady’ (Assa Sylla), ‘Adiatou’ (Lindsay Karamoh) and ‘Fily’ (Mariétou Touré).

 

Marieme changes her name to ‘Vic’ and drops out of school to be accepted into the fold of the anti-social trio in the hopes that this will lead her to be accepted into the fold of the anti-social trio, and secure her freedom. But in the crime-ridden and economically challenging milieu in which she’s forced to grow up, oppression comes in many forms, and proves increasingly difficult to disentangle from.

Though it’s mercifully shorter than Linklater’s opus – if we’re to continue this tenuous comparison – Girlhood is replete with leisurely scenes that favour atmosphere over both plot and character development, which certainly stretch the perception of its running time in the mind’s eye. But they also allow for a deeper take on the coming of age story, reminding us that long stretches of boredom, doubt, and an attention to sensorial details are a direct part of the experience.

A single-take scene in which the dolled-up quartet of girls engage in a casual – but rhapsodic – sing-along to Rihanna’s 2012 hit ‘Diamonds’ is particularly memorable. You do get a sense that it’s going on for far too long, that it’s getting a tad too voyeuristic and not really getting anywhere. But as ever, the devil is in the details: there is a brief cut to the still-shy Marieme, her hesitant gaze telling us all we need to know about her character at the moment.

She’s still unsure about whether to jump into the fray, and when she eventually does the singing rises to a visible crescendo, the scene giving way to an important development after all, despite the static positioning of the camera.

The scene is long precisely because it represents a precious moment: the kind of moment that sticks in your mind and is flagged up the second you recall ‘the good old days’.

Sciamma is great at these one-off moments of telling intimacy, but doesn’t fare all that well in marshalling a story into dynamic enough shape. While it’s admirable that the film eschews the standard ‘hero narrative’ beats that are the stock-in-trade for Hollywood coming of age stories, the episodic tumble it’s delivered in robs it of its punch, particularly as the story putters uncertainly towards its – otherwise justifiably inconclusive – end.

So it’s a good thing that performances are solid across the board. There’s a tightrope tension to Marieme’s induction into the trendy ‘gang’ that keeps things gripping, bolstered by the young cast’s a sensitivity to the codes and psychological nuances that underpin the crucial teenage rituals.

Girlhood was shown at St James Cavalier last week as part of the Lux Film Days – free screenings of the three competing films for this year’s edition of the Lux Film Prize.

teodor_reljic
Teodor Reljic is MaltaToday's culture editor and film critic. He joined t...
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