Girlhood

Girlhood

It is difficult to write about Girlhood. But this is because it is possibly beyond description for its trifecta of skill, style and substance. It is, thus far, Céline Sciamma's best.

In a strange way, Girlhood seems like a direct response to Linklater's Boyhood, even with its mirroring English title. While the former revolved around a white boy of middle class background with a vague and aimless personality, Girlhood instead features Marieme, a black girl from a poor neighbourhood with such character complexity that almost any girl/woman in the audience can identify with her own strives and struggles. Most writer-directors write for their own kind, as it is what they know best, but to see Sciamma attempt to step out of that is refreshing and full of importance to a demographic rarely represented on screen as the integral cast beyond stereotypes and comic relief. There is no novelty or glorification regarding the main characters being black women as it is secondary to the fact that they are simply well-developed characters with strong personalities and motivations. This serves helpful to the ensemble cast of actresses, comprising largely of fresh faces, all of them nevertheless putting forth notable performances and displaying impeccable chemistry. Their seeming lack of experience does not at all give way to amateurism, but instead lends the film a realistic touch of innocence.

Actually, innocence is something Sciamma visually plays with through her trademark stylisation and minimalist imagery. Through colours, the former is represented by calm and deep blues that envelop Marieme and her friends in a safe space, both as individuals and in solidarity, while splashes of loud and fiery reds signal dangerous and passionate moments that threaten both identity and sexuality—two themes that have also been prominent in Tomboy and Water Lilies. Hands are also a recurring motif throughout, a symbol of both violence and affection, of distance and reconciliation.

Sciamma's contrasts and oppositions in visuals and themes parallels the opposition between male and female; we see how women are strong and powerful as a group—as when in a sports team or in a gang—but are immediately made vulnerable in the imposing presence of men, more so when alone in the male-dominated world. This is the basis of Marieme's journey from girlhood to womanhood; she seeks protection and finds strength first in numbers and later in adopting masculinity, but in the end it is within herself she finds what she needs for empowerment, rejecting the violence and domestication brought on by the men she encounters. Finally she cries, but it isn't a moment of weakness that we see or feel, instead we get a sense of courage, of admission and acknowledgement towards what she has been through and conquered.

Girlhood is a story for women, about women, by a woman. It is a coming-of-age film that touches upon friendship and insurmountable struggles, fortunately managing to go beyond a portrayal of youthful naïveté and instead embracing a fragment of the collective female experience, an area left largely unexplored (or poorly executed by way of clichés) by mainstream cinema. One can only wonder if Sciamma has closed the book on her thoughts with regard to the recurring themes and ideas in what could be said to be her first informal trilogy, and while some may begin to find it repetitive, it is definitely something we as an audience and she herself continues to try and find answers for through her work. For that, we can only be grateful that she dares to venture into that space.