Written & Directed by Céline Sciamma
Marieme is a sixteen-year-old black teenager living on the outskirts of Paris. She learns that her school’s guidance counselor is pushing for her to follow a vocational track as her academics don’t appear to be high enough for an academic one. Marieme knows the expectations of her mother, who works as a custodian, are that she eventually go to university. In this moment of frustration, the young woman finds friendship with a trio of girls. These young women are known for getting into brawls with other women in their neighborhood, and through them, Marieme feels like she has power in an otherwise powerless position in the world. Over the course of this year, she will move from being a child into a young adult and have to face the obstacles and struggles that come along with that territory.
Girlhood is a good movie that could have been a great movie, and it’s the muddled, weak third act that hurts the potential. The film is at it’s best when the camera is capturing simple moments of female camaraderie, following the girls as they rent a hotel room to eat pizza, drink, and sing along to Rhianna. We spend time with them at a mini-golf course where the film showcases some charming comedic acting from these women. They face hardships and fight for each other, which strengthens the bonds. It’s in these moments that you fall in love with Girlhood and want to see where the story will go.
One aspect of the film that permeates the story is the constant tension of living in poverty. No matter how much fun these girls have or how brief their moments of joy, there is a looming presence of destruction, that any minute something is going to come and take this from them. For most of the film, it is represented by Marieme’s brother Djibril, the only real authority figure in the home as their mother works continuously. He is an abusive ogre whom the other children hide from in their rooms. As Marieme discovers her independence, this puts in conflict with Djibril who is not above physically harming his siblings if he believes they have stepped outside of the expected order.
Karidja Toure, who plays Marieme, is phenomenal and presents us with a fully formed three-dimensional character. Her joy and playfulness are real, and so is the fear and confusion thrown her way. I completely believed in Marieme, and this difficult place in life she is navigating. That’s why it is so frustrating when, in the third act, things drastically change, and important characters disappear from the movie. I understand what the director is doing it just completely took me out of a very engaging film. That final act almost feels like an entirely different movie or at least a sequel. There’s never an effort to revisit Marieme’s gang of girls; they are gone. I am hoping I just failed to see the larger thematic picture because otherwise, Girlhood lacks the cohesive narrative a film like this deserves.