In France, the title is Bande de Filles, which translates to something like “A Bunch of Girls.” But here in America, it’s just called Girlhood. Which essentially positions this movie—the latest by French filmmaker Cèline Sciamma—as a counterpoint to the already seminal Boyhood. And perhaps not just to Boyhood, but to the straight-white-maleness of so many cinematic coming-of-age narratives (of Harold and Maude, of Rushmore, of all their kin). And considering Sciamma’s main characters are four black girls, this is more than a response to any one film, but rather a much-needed corrective for the entire angsty-white-boy-grows-up narrative. And it’s a party for the type of people who’ve been backgrounded behind those white boys on our cinema screens in recent years.
Marieme (Karidja Tourè) is our entryway into the film’s chosen subculture: We follow her into the girl gang of the original title, shortly after she learns that her grades are going to force her into a vocational school. Together the gang forms a gaggle of bullies of the pre-cyber variety. They start fights in the subway and steal lunch money from the weaker kids. While brothers, fathers, and boyfriends work to police their femininity and sexuality at home, they indulge in acts of aggression as a form of recreation—they personify stereotypical machismo.
More than once, we see them viciously intimidating their peers, only to laugh it off moments later. Sciamma’s long takes reveals their bravado—the tough-girl act always falters before the camera turns away. The film’s most talked-about sequence sees the four perform a lip sync of Rihanna’s empowerment-ballad “Diamonds,” staring directly into the screen. They’re once again using performative behavior to give themselves a persona they can never find in their respective homes. The film corrects a narrative’s imbalance while the characters try to correct the patriarchal expectations laid on them.
Sciamma’s interests have already been established: She’s made three films, and they all consider the fluidity of sexuality or gender in one way or another. (The last one was called Tomboy.) Marieme eventually starts slinging drugs for a local crime boss, and tapers down her own femininity even further so as to survive in that milieu. But the sparse texture of the crime story pales in contrast to the vibrant way in which the high-school scenes are shot—it’s an unnecessarily allegorical addition to a film that had already found strength in realist details. The film is at its strongest in the schoolyard.
While we’re on the subject of the bildungsroman, it should be mentioned that there’s already a storied tradition of films about young white men misbehaving in the French cinema. Movies like Zero for Conduct, by Jean Vigo, and The 400 Blows, by François Truffaut, are more than just celebrated cultural objects—they’re often cited as essential texts in the creation of the art form. Sciamma may not have the aesthetic invention of those men, but she doesn’t need it. She’s daring to make films about the kind of people—individuals who belong to marginalized races, genders, and sexual orientations—that Vigo and Truffaut never bothered to turn their cameras toward.