What is life like for a girl in France? In Girlhood, Marieme’s (Karidja Touré) life is not great. Her brother is abusive, her mother is absent, she’s failing school, and she likes a boy. But things change when she meets three neighbourhood girls who show her a different side of life. She takes on a new name, changes her hair and her clothes, and even quits school to join their gang, hoping it will lead to something more.
Girlhood is a coming of age story set in the working class suburbs of France, featuring almost entirely black French actors. Marieme/Vic goes through radical changes throughout the film, from appearing childish and unsure of herself to becoming a fully fledged member of a gang of girls, to getting involved in actual criminal activity, eschewing traditional markers of femininity.
Karidja Touré’s performance as Vic is eye-catching – she conveys the lost, naive side of being sixteen incredibly well, as well as the tough, hard side of it. Vic’s fellow girls, leader Lady (Assa Sylla), Adiatou (Lindsay Karamoh) and Fily (Marietou Touré) are similarly engaging in their own ways.
Girlhood may not be for everyone in that it’s a slow-burning story – it’s full of static shots, silence and long pauses, with little narrative direction to speak of. That doesn’t mean it’s not intriguing – the lack of clear narrative direction is sort of how life is, after all – but it made the two hours the film runs feel longer. There are a few scenes that are genuinely delightful – the girls playing mini golf, the dancing in the rain, the fight scene – but they’re interspersed with long stretches of melancholy quiet. It can be a little off-putting for those who prefer a bit more action in their films, but the vibe of the film is more mumblecore than hardcore.
In addition, it’s full of interesting bits and pieces that are never really fully expanded on or returned to. For example, the opening scene is of a rugby game in which Marieme is playing in. However, there’s no callback to the fact that Marieme plays rugby, a fact that seems pretty unusual and worth talking about. The fact that the gang had a fourth member who got pregnant and left is also something that was never addressed before or after she made an appearance. Similarly, Abou, who runs criminal activity in the neighbourhoods, isn’t mentioned until the moment he becomes relevant in the latter act of the film. This lack of cohesion means that sometimes the film isn’t satisfying in its journey.
Still, that’s a personal issue for me, and apart from that, there’s plenty to enjoy. The intimate portrayal of a girl who has been let down by the system and has fallen through the cracks is more than a little heartbreaking, and director Céline Sciamma succeeds in creating a complex depiction of what life can be like for girls.