Coming of age films are common and often predictable. They fetishize adolescence through rose-colored glasses or display the unsurprising pitfalls that young people fall into much to the chagrin of adults. Céline Sciamma’s “Girlhood” or, in French, “Bande de filles” (Gang of Girls), transcends the typical coming of age stereotypes and focuses on a subject that most films of this genre ignore.
“Girlhood” debuted in France in 2014 and now comes to the U.S. in select cities and streaming on Netflix. This French language film follows Karidja Touré as Marieme, a 16-year-old African-French teenager from a poor Paris suburb. She struggles academically and drops out of school after middle school when she learns that her only option is a vocational track. At home, Marieme deals with an absent, hard-working mother and an abusive older brother. She also takes care of her two younger sisters and has a close relationship with the middle sister. A group of three girls approach Marieme and she joins their gang. Once in the gang, Marieme becomes more selfish, but also more self-assured. The gang’s leader gives her a new name too—Vic for victory.
One might expect the gang of girls to corrupt Marieme and lead her down an illicit path. Like 2003’s “Thirteen,” many films about a young woman demonstrate how peer pressure from other struggling young women lead her to make poor choices. But “Girlhood” shows the importance of female friendship in Marieme’s development. The gang leads Marieme into a life of petty theft, intimidation and fist fights. But the four girls support each other. One scene depicts the four girls dancing in a hotel room, wearing stolen dresses and singing to Rihanna’s “Diamonds,” and then falling asleep together. Color plays a significant role in “Girlhood,” contributing to visually appealing, emotive, feminine shots. Cast in beautiful shades of blue, a color that symbolizes dreamlike happiness for Marieme, the girls appear simultaneously innocent and mature, but above all, carefree and fun. The scene captures female youth in all its glamorous, shallow glory.
The film notably differs from most American films in its subtlety–it communicates the plot rather discretely. It is a great example of showing instead of telling. For those raised on Hollywood films (like me), “Girlhood” may feel slow at times. It lacks big emotional breakdowns, a lot of screaming and confrontations. The softness is fitting since Marieme is not in a position to loudly rebel against her mother, her brother or any of the figures Marieme later answers to. The film requires the viewer to put the pieces of the narrative together with the clues Sciamma leaves—like a pair of shoes on the floor or a change in Touré’s posture. The details of the cinematography and acting are heavily considered and particularly important because there’s minimal dialogue and action. Complete silence and music leave room for Touré to convey her character’s state of mind through her acting choices. “Girlhood” has a relaxed energy, easing the viewer slowly into increasingly dark topics.
Thematic connotations include sisterhood and personal agency. In contrast to many coming of age films with male protagonists, friends are an intrinsic part of Marieme’s bildungrsoman. In every one of Marieme’s circles, she grows close to the women. Marieme and the women in her life (sisters, friends, roommates) mutually nurture and protect each other. Also, even when personal circumstances and social structures limit the characters’ abilities to make decisions, Marieme and her friends still assert independence and control over their bodies. Though Marieme joins a gang, she remains fiercely independent and would rather struggle on her own than take a safer route that would force her to depend on her family or her boyfriend. Marieme also has power over her sexuality. She initiates her first sexual experience, even though she knows that her community will consequently shame her and label her a slut.
Marieme goes through her coming of age as an already strong, intelligent girl, not an innocent blank slate. The increased freedom that comes from growing up provides her with opportunities to use her strength and intelligence to make decisions about her own life. “Girlhood” realistically depicts coming of age as a process. The film ends ambiguously because the transition from girl to woman is not an exact journey from one point to another. Marieme is a complex individual at the beginning of the film too. Childhood does not equate to innocence, especially considering Marieme’s class, race and gender. Films often leave out the fact that social oppressions affect children. “Girlhood” follows a character that films rarely depict: a strong, vulnerable black girl from a poor family. Sciamma treats this character with the elegance and subtlety that Marieme, and every character in a coming of age film, deserve.