“Bursting onto the screen in a blast of buzzing power pop, Girlhood, the Cannes Directors’ Fortnight opening film from Céline Sciamma (Water Lilies, Tomboy), is marked from the outset by its energetic embrace of the complexity and contradictions of underprivileged, urban teenage life,” begins Jessica Kiang at the Playlist. “An (American) football game is in progress, but the players beneath the pads are all female, mostly black, and speak a slangy colloquial French: they are, as the French title has it, a ‘Bande des Filles,’ a gang of girls from the same notorious Parisian suburbs that spawned La Haine. Choosing to locate her story in these drab, socio-economically depressed surroundings and to tell it through the eyes of a young black girl is not only a departure for Sciamma whose previously equally well-observed coming of age tales have played out in mostly white middle class settings, but a risk, and yet it pays off in absolutely triumphant fashion.”
In the Hollywood Reporter, David Rooney suggests that “while La Haine was fueled by its visceral rawness and violent intensity, Girlhood is a thoughtful, far more intimate portrait of characters whose toughness doesn’t exclude vulnerability, humor or even sweetness. There have been countless views of urban life and its limited prospects in movies, but the gaze here feels entirely fresh. Sciamma and her cinematographer Crystel Fournier capture with spot-on specificity the milieu of these girls—the slab concrete-block architecture of the apartment buildings where they live; the mall at Les Halles where they go to hang out and shoplift; the square at La Defense where they dance to hip-hop music in the shadow of the Grande Arche. And yet these characters and their behavior are as imminently recognizable as teens from, say, New York or London.”
“Clearly divided into four distinct sections, Girlhood illustrates the circumstances leading up to several major turning points for Marieme [Karidja Toure], who lives in the projects in northwest Paris and desperately wants to sort out her adult persona,” writes Variety‘s Peter Debruge. “At the end of each, the screen cuts to black, electro music (by Water Lilies composer Para One) swells and the character re-emerges with an entirely new identity: braided hair as a student, a straightened weave to match her fellow dropouts, a kinky blonde wig when running errands for a local crime boss, and finally, ‘herself’ in the final segment…. Whereas Sciamma’s last two films challenged sexual taboos by acknowledging LGBT themes among underage characters, in this case, race is a more powerful factor than attraction.”
Marieme’s three closest friends are Lady (Assa Sylla), Adiatou (Lindsay Karamoh) and Fily (Marietou Toure) and, at Cineuropa, Fabien Lemercier argues that Sciamma presents “in great detail and with superb simplicity, the day-to-day life and mood of Clos-France, all the while exuding moments of sheer cinematic power, based on the explosive energy of her four lead characters…; yet this doesn’t prevent her from shrewdly suggesting a deeper message about the France of today. Having become an expert in the art of portraying females and young people, the filmmaker has also come up with a fine demonstration of directing on the go, clinging to her characters and favoring understated efficiency over pretentious theatricality in order to shine the brightest light possible on her actresses—four true revelations.”
“The ability to reconcile sensuousness with gender politics has always been a strength of Sciamma’s work,” writes Lee Marshall, “and here the camera lingers on the skin, the hair, the hands, the eyes, the dance moves of Mariame and her girlfriends, contrasting their confident beauty and sexuality with the boxy drabness of their home environment.” Also for Screen Daily, Melanie Goodfellow interviews Sciamma.
Update, 5/16: From Indiewire‘s Eric Kohn: “Sciamma treats her protagonists with the same degree of intelligence allotted to characters twice their age, at once sympathizing with Marieme’s plight as the product of her troubled socioeconomic climate without pitying her. Nobody gives her an easy out; the movie’s suspense expertly builds out of her own process of sussing out the options at her disposal.”
And here’s the front page of today’s Libération:
Update, 5/17. Viewing (9’01”). Cineuropa interviews Sciamma—in English.
Update, 5/18: “Though ostensibly about identity and the pains of growing up, this is above all a film about the oppressive boredom of suburban teenagedom,” writes Adam Woodward at Little White Lies. “Marieme is a prisoner without parole, stuck between an unsympathetic brother, the boy she has eyes for and her goading peers, for whom she takes on a rival gang member in a brutal car-park cat fight from which she emerges victorious, thus galvanizing seemingly most of the young black girls in her home town. When she notices her younger sister following suit, however, old Marieme snaps back into focus. If Marieme’s transition from butter-wouldn’t-melt virgin to knife-wielding slut is unconvincing, and her consequent redemption feels even more forced and unconvincing.”
Update, 5/19: “Importantly, Sciamma, who in 2007 made an equally charming girls-growing-up movie called Water Lilies, has a wonderful sense of watchfulness, as both a filmmaker and a storyteller,” writes Wesley Morris at Grantland. “There’s a really good tracking shot in which more than a dozen players in a girls football league enjoy a rowdy postgame stroll home that ends when they reach the entrance of their housing complex. The noise all but dies, and almost every girl walks to the entryway with her head cast down, until they’ve all fallen away, leaving only Vic. The film is built out of inspired touches like that…. But the rhythms and themes are like an old acquaintance you put up with because you need someone to talk to.”
Updates, 5/21: “Whether using her newfound switchblade for revenge (not what you’d think) or discovering her budding sexuality, Touré reveals herself to be a terrific, naturalistic talent (as are her three costars),” writes Aaron Hillis for Filmmaker, “and Sciamma’s sharp, graceful compositions could’ve had the film renamed Blue Is the Warmest Color for its distinctive palette alone.”
Sciamma “depicts social realism with a formally interesting edge,” writes Ben Croll at Twitch. “She knows that an expressive camera and an agile soundtrack are not the enemies of deeper truth (after a week of handheld cameras and natural soundscapes, for which I am deeply grateful). She’s smart enough to know that no transformation, no social reconfiguration will ever solve Marieme/Vic’s problems. But she’s generous enough to leave us with a powerful last shot, assuring us that whatever complications arise, Marieme has the strength to push forward and push through.”