A Band Apart: Girlhood

01/28/2015 9:00 AM |
Photo courtesy of Strand Releasing

Directed by Céline Sciamma
Opens January 30
Girlhood could be a title for any of Céline Sciamma’s films. Whether her directorial gaze is fixed on burgeoning teenage sexuality (as in her debut, Water Lilies), a young girl presenting herself as a boy (Tomboy) or a group of girlfriends, with a confused, charismatic young woman at its center, Sciamma is consistently attuned to the minutiae of female relationships, which are too often glossed over.

The main girl of Girlhood is Marieme (Karidja Touré), who lives in a housing project on the outskirts of Paris, with little parental presence and few academic prospects. Her life feels drab, until she meets a group of three spirited bad girls who take her under their wing. The French title of the film, Bande de Filles (“band of girls”) is appropriate—they band together, and function as a unit of street-smart femininity. Marieme’s enchantment with these girls is palpable, and with the naturally sweet expression of her round face and slanted eyes, it’s easy to empathize with her. It is refreshing to watch a film that presents the cool girls not as quirky waifs, but as tough black girls. In the film’s most deeply felt scene, the four girls have a ladies’ night in a hotel room, wearing new dresses for each other and dancing joyously to Rihanna’s “Diamonds.” The blue light and gyrating bodies recall Spring Breakers, but this moment arises not from winking stylization, but something more sincere—the girls admire one another, and Sciamma in turn admires them, giving them the space and time to revel in the music.

It is disappointing, then, when violence seeps in to the film’s second half. One of the girls gets into a brawl—a crowded, noisy affair that stands in stark contrast to the “Diamonds” dance. Marieme ends up in a fight too and falls in with a shadier crowd. The first act of Girlhood shines a poignant light on black female friendship, and the presence of violence feels like an unfortunate attempt at projecting racial verisimilitude. What’s far more interesting is the sight of these four girls enjoying each other’s company: Seeing their interior world is more refreshing than what is outside.