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Girlz n the Hood: Girlhood captures the ups and downs of teenage life in France

Celine Sciamma’s dedication to the minimalism that brings her observant eye to the fore is inevitably problematic, as she is destined to be frustratingly misinterpreted by those wishing to deconstruct and interpret a message. This comes to the fore in Girlhood, a film where natural flow of life is assumed and yet its trajectory transformed by the interpretation of events and small choices. Sciamma tells a tale of a girl, Marieme (Karidja Touré), whose self-determination is constantly thwarted by the stereotypes of her environment, those she interprets herself and those imposed upon her from without. It makes for disjointed narrative and displays the seemingly erratic behavior of teens precisely as is, which interrupts an expected cinematic story flow. If Marieme appears a victim of a typically disinterested education system that prevents her from high school, a one-dimensional brother who beats her at home and a beaten-down-by-life mother who has lost the ability to care for her children, it’s because that’s how she sees those aspects of her environment, and those are the effects her environment has upon her. As she states toward the end of the film, life for her is a conflux of beautiful moments she chooses to remember as being perfect, and disjointed acts of antagonism that seemingly come from nowhere. It is to these she responds, and to life’s beauty she gleans and collects images of joy and most of all hope, giving her a sense of worth in a world determined to strike against her at every turn.

But it’s Sciamma’s eye for detail that brings us close, even if it has an equally frustrating ability to push us away. An opening tracking shot reveals teenage girls celebrating a gridiron win at training, under the harsh lights of the football field. The girls are inspired, filled with beautiful giggle and chatter as they return to their respective homes. As the group near the impoverished projects where they live, the chatter dies down and is replaced by a seriousness that implies fear. The girls look furtively over their shoulders as boys step from the shadows and retreat again. Slowly the group dissipates, the safety in numbers dissolving before the camera’s eye that gently reveals Marieme and a verbally harassed friend, as the final girls left. When her friend moves off toward her apartment, Marieme walks on alone, her purple hoodie standing out in stark contrast to the dismal darkness of the poverty around her. This shot alone implies the precariousness of her life, that events beyond her control threaten to impact and take her over at any second. This feeling of unease and dread invades everything until Marieme is refused entry to high school because she won’t tell the story of her abusive home life. She walks out of the interview directly into the embrace of a girl gang who invite her to feel temporarily safe in the arms of peers on the streets. Within days Marieme has changed her look from plaited chignon to glamour queen including straightened hair, denim jackets over cool jeans and expensive sneakers.

All this expressive observation reaches its zenith with a spectacular scene where the four girls steal enough money to hire a hotel room where they take bubble baths, dress in beautiful stolen dresses, drink and take drugs together. At the height of fervor, under Sciamma’s washed blue light, they lip-synch together to a full rendition of Rihanna’s “Diamonds”, the scene flawlessly taking its cues from the behavior of teenage girls themselves and their own relationship to the pop icons they wish to emulate and desire. At first Marieme watches apart, moved to tears by the beauty of witnessing her friends as they perform to the early parts of the song, but soon she is compelled to get up, sing along and join in on the freewheeling joyous escapism of teenage girls. It’s a breathtaking scene, perfectly at one with the mood and experience of the teen girl, gripping and thrilling to watch.

It is this moment she seeks to recapture, but as she is swayed by the indistinct forces around her the opportunities available radically dissipate, and with them the hope of a promising future. Every attempt to wield her power is counteracted with opposing forces that step in to refuse her power. If it seems that the choices Marieme has made ring a false note, that is a misunderstanding of the ephemeral nature of fate, and the horrific ease with which a life on the edge can plummet into an out of control spiral. Remaining true to her original aesthetic trajectory, Sciamma keeps clothing, hair, makeup and eye contact the principle instruments of social positioning and the minutia of small world hierarchies, but problematically finds the leaps between these stages so abrupt and minimalist. It can occur as implausible to a white privileged audience. Any teen girl and anyone who has been a teen girl knows how important clothing is to an inner transformation, so in remaining true to this aesthetic Sciamma runs the risk of her integrity dividing her audience. However, for those of us who recognize her point, she offers chilling observational accuracy.

Girlhood is the third in the coming-of-age trilogy by Sciamma and cements her position as one of the most important filmmakers of her age. She draws flawless performances from her unprofessional cast (particularly Assa Sylla, Karidja Touré, Lindsay Karamoh and Marietou Toure) and paints an exquisite picture of the perils and delirious heights of a teenage girl, while seamlessly coalescing with an immersion in a world of black impoverished teens in France.

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