The best films about childhood are able to transcend their time and setting to strike at the core of what it means to grow up. Céline Sciamma’s Girlhood follows the growing pains of Marieme (Karidja Touré), a black, French teenager living in an impoverished suburb, and takes the life experiences of a girl a world away from that of many who will sit down to watch Girlhood and conjures images and moments that exemplify the universality of childhood.
Marieme is at an early crossroads. Her poor grades make it impossible to attend high school and the only thing more unappealing to the 16-year-old than learning a trade at a technical school is cleaning hotels like her mother. Marieme occupies a world that seems to be devoid of adults and run mostly by the opposite sex – her neighbourhood is patrolled by howling boys and her home in which she looks after her sister is ruled by her violent older brother, Djibril (Cyril Mendy).
She finds herself drawn to a gang of women, Lady (Assa Sylla), Adiatou (Lindsay Karamoh) and Fily (Mariétou Touré), who are short one girl after an old member is whisked away to the ‘normality’ motherhood.
Karidja Touré is a quietly alluring presence armed with a soulface countenance that manages to say so much doing very little. The rest of her gang fall prey slightly to overacting in the beginning but as Girlhood progresses their group dynamic becomes movingly real.
Marieme goes through a tremendous amount of change in a short space of time. Strategically placed fades-to-black usher in a slightly modified Marieme, either physically with a shorter haircut or baggier clothes, or in her outlook such as a turn to more violent behaviour. Marieme and co indulge in many questionable activities – arguments with girls at the subway and extremely heavy-handed fist-fights – but Sciamma maintains an objective distance throughout.
But it perhaps happens all too quickly. The current film climate is inundated with bloated films outstaying their welcome, yet Girlhood may have benefited from being a bit longer. Marieme’s coming-of-age is a slice of life that sometimes feels a little insubstantial as her situation takes a series of dramatic turns in just under two brisk hours.
Her abusive older brother is a notable fallout of this. Djibril starts the film utterly reprehensible and is barely developed beyond that, save for one moment in which he learns of Marieme ‘wasting’ another girl in a fight earlier that day. Delighted at the news, Djibril offers her sister an Xbox controller for a game of FIFA in a rare, touching instance of kindness. Otherwise his purpose seems to be only for when Sciamma requires Marieme to suffer.
There is a sequence halfway that encapsulates much of what Girlhood is and what it achieves. The girls use stolen money to book out a hotel, Sciamma eventually cuts to a scene in which all four friends mime and dance to ‘Diamonds’ by Rihanna in its entirety. It starts off slightly awkwardly, but little by little it becomes hard not to be sucked in by its raw, unabashed energy and vibrancy. (7)