by Elliot Davies
Céline Sciamma has made the best coming of age film in years – Girlhood received a UK preview at the 2015 Derby Film Festival.
The original French title of Girlhood is Bande de Filles – which might be translated as Gang of Girls. The screening at the 2015 Derby Film Festival was preceded by an introduction by BBC Radio Derby’s Devon Daley. He proposed that the title might be a reference to a much earlier film – John Singleton’s Boyz n the Hood.
Like that film, Girlhood deals with the pressures of inner city living, particularly the ways in which young people, with no guidance, and no prospects, might fall into a life of crime simply because they feel as though they have no alternatives.
And for some, there really might not be any alternatives. Only one scene in Girlhood features anything approaching an authority figure, and even then, they’re nothing more than a disembodied voice – flatly explaining that, with such poor grades, there’s no chance that our hero, Marieme, will be allowed into high school.
Marieme is played by Karidja Touré. Like most of the cast, she was recruited straight from the streets. The lives you see onscreen are lives that have really been lived – the voices you hear are exactly the voices you’d hear whilst walking through the banlieue estates, on the outskirts of Paris.
Speaking to the Guardian, Touré describes how glad she was to see the school scene in the script, explaining that it’s a thing that happens to “loads of, let’s say, African girls”. They’re intent on pursuing their education, but find themselves held back by poor grades, and an apathetic educational authority that’s quick to attribute blame, but seemingly reluctant to offer solutions.
Understandably, the news that she won’t be allowed to continue her education upsets Marieme. But whilst storming from the classroom, a trio of young women, apparently attracted to her anger, call her over. Their leader wears a gold necklace displaying her name – Lady.
They take her to Paris, where life is louder. When Marieme is tormented by a racist shopkeeper, they have her back. When a rival gang of girls jeer from the other side of a train station, Lady flashes a flick knife. It’s scary, but exhilarating.
Later on, when doing the dishes in her Bagnolet flat, Marieme pockets the sharpest knife she can find in her kitchen. Then, whilst bright EDM arpeggios play over a black screen, Marieme enters her chrysalis. The next time we see her, some time has passed, and she has transformed. She’s now tough, dominant, defiant, and before long she’ll be christened “Vic” – short for Victory – by Lady.
One of the first things we see this new Marieme do is mug a younger girl – who behaves just like we’ve seen Marieme previously behaving – for ten euros. Violence is hard to avoid in her new life – you can get into brutal street fights simply as a result of sitting in a kebab shop – but it’s through violence that Marieme is finally able to bond – however briefly – with her thuggish older brother.
It’s also through violence that Vic is able to spend a night with her gang in a clean, private hotel room – drinking vodka and trying on glamorous outfits with their security tags still attached. Bathed in electric blue light, they sing and dance to Rihanna’s Diamonds – and you won’t see a more uplifting scene in any other film this year:
With her perfect cast and her meticulous attention to detail, director Céline Sciamma has crafted something unforgettable. Girlhood gives a face and a voice to those who are frequently denied a presence in global cinema, and to those who are all but silent in French cinema. Without feeling like a contrived “statement”, it relegates the men to a position usually occupied by women in films – they are backdrops, archetypes, eye-candy. There are no words to express how refreshing this is.
It manages to be gritty without revelling in squalor and hopelessness. It manages to celebrate the things that make life living whilst neither ignoring nor dwelling upon the challenges faced by 21st century women. It manages to tell scores of unfathomably complex stories in the space of less than two hours, whilst never letting us forget that we are merely scratching the surface.
Challenging, moving, and utterly compelling, this is cinema at its finest.
Girlhood is released in the UK on May 8, 2015.