The coming-of-age drama has become quite an overused concept in cinema, but Céline Sciamma puts an original spin on the genre with her female-centric Girlhood, set in an impoverished housing estate on the outskirts of Paris.
Combining the grit of Andrea Arnold’s Fish Tank with the social realism of La Haine, Girlhood reverts gender stereotypes from its opening scene that depicts a woman’s American Football match. The camera pans between the young women but it’s some time before we’re introduced to our star.
She is Marieme (played to perfection Karidja Touré in an extraordinary debut performance) a shy teenager living under the thumb of her controlling and violent brother. Craving an outlet from her repressed life, Marieme joins a female gang lead by the charismatic Lady (Assa Sylla). But whether this new friendship is good for her remains to be seen.
Initially accompanying the girls as a silent tag-along on a shopping trip to Paris, Lady shows her loyalty to Marieme when she confronts a racist shopkeeper on her behalf. She then adorns her with her own necklace (like the ones worn by the other members of the gang) bearing her new name ‘Vic’. But alongside the independence and confidence that comes with her new identity, a crueller girl emerges – one who bullies timid students out of their money and organises fights.
Yet, for all the personal liberties Marieme experiences under the guise of Vic – either good or bad – the confines of the ruthless patriarchy that surrounds her is never far away. She rejects the advances of her crush in fear of how her brother will react only to be throttled by him once she defies his rules. These brutal expressions of male dominance are littered throughout the film and displayed when Marieme is aggressively harassed by an older man at a party and Lady is harshly punished after a humiliating defeat in a fight she planned. These moments stand as a reminder of the daily struggles the girls face when attempting to overcome the oppression’s imposed on them.
Much like the critically lauded Moonlight, Girlhood turns the camera on characters that are overlooked in mainstream cinema and provides an insightful exploration of the lives of young girls struggling to find a sense of self in a world that suppresses them.