Watch it with us: Netflix streaming
Girlhood is so outstanding I almost don’t know what to say about it. So let’s dive right in, shall we?
Marieme is sixteen and has a crappy home life with an older brother who beats her up recreationally and a largely absent mother. Faced with the prospect of vocational school or no school at all, she drops out and is immediately befriended by three female juvenile delinquents. They party and shoplift and brawl with other girl gangs, but they also form a close friendship and take care of one another. Marieme falls in love with a friend of her brother’s, and when her brother finds out she’s had sex, he beats her up and she runs away, bidding a tearful goodbye to her girlfriends and her younger sister. She starts selling drugs for a gangster named Abou, and he moves her into an apartment with a young prostitute in his employ. But Abou proves to be just as much a bully as Marieme’s brother, so she runs away from him as well. She has to find somewhere else to run to.
From the way I summarized the plot, Girlhood probably sounds like a classic cautionary tale: Be careful who you run around with, kids! They could lead you astray and the next thing you know, you’re living in a squat and selling drugs! But the story is beautifully ambiguous, right down to the ending. None of Marieme’s options are ideal, and the one she picks has a lot working against it. Marieme and her friends and family are not cookie-cutter heroes or villains. There’s nothing glamorous about the way Marieme and her crew bully other girls into handing over their money or wear shoplifted dresses with the anti-theft devices still attached. But they’re likeable nonetheless.
There’s a great scene in which the four girls get high in a hotel room and dance to Rihanna’s “Diamonds.” It’s shot so gorgeously it almost looks like a music video, and yet it feels playful and silly, as befits a bunch of teenage girls having a glorified slumber party. Despite the strength and sense of identity that Marieme gets from her friends, when her younger sister tries to join a similar gang, Marieme doesn’t hesitate to yank her out of there and take her home.
I love how often Marieme’s physical strength comes into play. At the beginning of the film she’s playing American football in full pads and gear with a bunch of other girls. Later she beats up the girl who beat up her friend Lady. So many coming-of-age movies about teenage girls only deal with their bodies in terms of sexual maturation and suddenly becoming interested in boys. We do see this happen to Marieme, but she also takes a lot of pleasure in being tall and strong and physically fit. In fact, the revenge she enacts for Lady affects Marieme far more profoundly than losing her virginity—she’s completely jubilant as she and her friends laugh and play in the rain as they walk home.
If I still haven’t convinced you to see Girlhood, do it for the gorgeous synth score, which reminded me of It Follows, a film I’m always happy to be reminded of. Girlhood is the third feature film by French director Céline Sciamma, who is younger than I am. I would hate her for it but I’m too excited to see what she does next.
Ashley Wells watches too many movies and welcomes recommendations for more. Leave her one here or on Twitter: @ashleybwells. Spoiler alert: she has already seen Troll 2.