It's been ages since I've had the chance to go to the cinema and I know I have no chance of catching on up on this spring's new movie releases. However, I did manage to go and see Céline Sciamma's new film Bande de filles (Girlhood) yesterday afternoon, which is best described as Bande de filles as Mean Girls meets La haine with a generous helping of Boyhood. It's a brooding and often raw film, which follows 16-year-old Marieme (Karidja Touré), who lives in a Parisian suburb, as she tries to find happiness — and her true self.
As the film opens, we see Marieme celebrating with her teammates after a successful American football game. The music is upbeat, but Marieme seems sad, and as she goes home to care for her two younger sisters, there is an ominous note in the air. We soon learn that Marieme's mother works long hours to provide for her family and is rarely around. Meanwhile, her brother Djibril (Cyril Mendy) is occasionally protective, but more often aggressive and violent towards his sisters. Worse still, Marieme finds out that she won't be allowed to progress to the general lycée with her friends, as her grades aren't high enough; instead she will have to go to the vocational lycée, despite her attempts to persuade her teacher otherwise.
Marieme is initially wary when three girls — Lady (Assa Sylla), Adiatou (Lindsay Karamoh) and Fily (Mariétou Touré) — try to befriend her, but feeling vulnerable and trying to find somewhere she can fit in, she soon becomes the fourth member of their gang. They shop (and shoplift), they drink, smoke and dance in a hotel room funded by money stolen from their classmates, and they fight with girls from other gangs.
And Marieme starts to enjoy it all, even though her young teen sister Bébé (Simina Soumaré) is worried about the rapid changes in her sister, and Djibril is more concerned about the potential damage to Marieme's (and therefore his own) reputation, especially after she becomes closer to his friend Ismaēl (Idrissa Diabaté). The sadness and uncertainty in Marieme's eyes never fades and she begins to wonder whether her newly reclaimed life allows her to be any freer or happier than she was before, and begins to wrestle with the question of whether or not she wants to be une fille bien.
The film is told in segments, each of which ends with a fade-to-black while upbeat dance music plays in the background, followed by a time-jump and a further change in Marieme's appearance. First, her sporty clothes and braids are replaced by cooler, more trendy and feminine clothing as she spends more time with her new friends, but by the final act, she is back in her sweatpants. It isn't especially subtle, but it saves endless exposition and montages.
Sciamma's film is often uncomfortable to watch, but it is, by turns, honest and tender, and is anchored by Touré's excellent central performance as the troubled heroine. Touré's Marieme has a powerful inner strength that is often crippled by uncertainty and fear, and even as Marieme makes poor decisions, we can't help but empathise. The supporting cast is also strong, especially Sylla, playing a complex role.