Girlhood screens at the Gene Siskel Film Center for a weeklong run beginning tonight. Click here for showtimes and information.
In what’s her third film, director Céline Sciamma has emerged as the preeminent voice of social concern in contemporary cinema. She is a filmmaker capable of astute sociological observations and thankfully has the filmmaking chops to realize her ambitions. In Girlhood, she traces the abject consequences of androcentrism on a young, female black teenager in France. It’s a stark study of social alienation and the prevailing sense of anomie that one endures when confronted with social handicaps. Yet amid the Big Themes that Sciamma’s film tackles, she never loses sight of the micro concerns within the macro structure – she is a resolutely human filmmaker that understands the cinematic value of a compelling character combating a harsh reality.
The sociological underpinnings of Girlhood are explored from the onset with Sciamma staging an American football sequence featuring teenage girls in a French suburb. She’s subverting gender expectations and stereotypes right from the start. But despite the liberating nature of this sequence, the scene is immediately followed by the group of girls entering the grounds of their apartment complex, silenced by the presence of lurking men. They walk in groups, aware of the dangers of roaming the grounds alone. It’s a dynamic that Sciamma reinforces throughout Girlhood, augmenting her central androcentric thesis.
Girlhood primarily focuses on the steady moral decline of Marieme (Karidja Touré), a teenage girl on the social fringe. Held back a year, she’s notified early in the film that she will not be passed on to high school but rather referred to a vocational academy. It’s a crushing blow to the teen, whose pleas with her unseen counselor emphasize her need for normalcy. What she endures is certainly atypical for a girl this young: she takes care of her young sisters and functions as a mother while her older brother oversees as a violent patriarchy. Now having failed to proceed to high school, we see Marieme find refuge in a group of freewheeling girls who more or less share her disconnect with conventional mores.
As was the case with Sciamma’s previous film Tomboy, Girlhood moves breathlessly through the lived-in qualities of its characters. There’s an immediacy to be felt out of Marieme, whose struggle for acceptance is both universally relatable yet defiantly personal. It’s a remarkable feat, really, to consider that Sciamma complements her thesis of male hegemony governing society with a poignant narrative of a girl’s struggle for agency, but that’s the narrative that penetrates.
The picture does prove to be a bit bloated, if only because the narrative beats of a young woman descending a downward spiral of despair must come to fruition. It’s a downtrodden picture in stretches, overwhelming in despair at times. And as Girlhood enters its final stretch, we only see the blurry background of Parisian shrubbery – a visage of the cloudy future left for Marieme as we hear her whimper outside the frame. That is until she emerges into the frame with great clarity, eyes focused and determined. She’s an inherently good, young person hindered by social constructs. Those eyes will pierce through anything in her way.