Let’s be real: A gender-flipped version of Richard’s Linklater’s Boyhood would probably be less uplifting and a hell of a lot more disturbing to watch over the course of 12 years. Just thinking about everything that the average girl internalizes from the ages of 6 to 18, especially in a society that promotes impossible beauty standards only achievable through Photoshop and fêtes “likes” as point values for self-worth, makes this writer want to crawl into a cave and forget that we live in a world where five-year-olds have Instagram accounts.
Despite the comparable titles, Girlhood (original French title Bande de Filles, or “Band of Girls”) is nothing like Boyhood, but that shouldn’t come as much of a surprise. At the center of this story is a black, French teenager named Marieme (Karidja Touré, empathetic and captivating in her first film role) who tries on different identities to impress a posse of tough-talking, leather-jacketed older girls in the projects outside of Paris. How Marieme transforms herself physically, vocally, and behaviorally to match her clique, slipping into different characterizations as easily as one might try on clothes to see what fits, is not shocking, per se — teenage girls have excelled at social chameleon-ing for centuries — but gripping nonetheless.
French writer-director Céline Sciamma (Water Lilies, Tomboy) proves yet again that she is one of the most exciting filmmakers of her generation, shooting in her signature dialogue-light, fluid, and neo-minimalist style that invokes the distinction of “art” sans hyperbole. Through Girlhood, Sciamma captures the emotional minefield of adolescence and, more specifically, the intensity of female friendship, with a visceral blow to wherever those memories lay dormant.
In Girlhood’s most memorable scene, Marieme and her girlfriends are singing and dancing to Rihanna’s “Diamond” in a hotel room. The atmosphere is purposefully bathed in an intoxicating, midnight-blue light, as if the memory is taking hold in the moment and turning it into a fantasy. Any girl who has ever felt a sisterhood in friendship can recognize that dream-like moment of connection: in the smile that spreads across Marieme’s face as she watches the other girls before joining them, in the gangly limbs swaying freely, pulling each other into a body that moves as one. A sense of belonging so often feels like magic.
Of course, coming-of-age stories resonate for a reason. Growing up is an experience that everyone can relate to, in the most general sense. But we already have countless Hollywood-glossed, lily-white representations of teenage girlhood that we can point to as cultural touchstones: Pretty in Pink, Heathers, Now and Then, Mean Girls, etc. What elevates Sciamma’s Girlhood is a potent combination of necessity — yes, we need more stories that fall outside of the predominantly white and Westernized cinematic milieu — and a lyrical naturalism that draws comparison to Gus Van Sant’s Paranoid Park, except that the “non-actors” here can actually act.
Girlhood may have its stylized moments, but there’s nothing artificial about it. For the most part, it’s as if these teens simply exist inside of their microcosm, while the camera acts as their invisible voyeur. For the audience, getting sucked in to Marieme’s story is less of a choice than it is a natural consequence — and an achingly familiar one at that.