Girlhood is so keyed to the minutiae of its teenage protagonists’ lives, it’s as if the film can’t stop itself from behaving like they do. Much like the bad-girl clique into which the reticent Marieme (Karidja Touré) becomes happily integrated, director Céline Sciamma’s third feature is self-assured, vivacious, and full of promise, yet also erratic, often ham-fisted in its approach, and ultimately unable to reconcile its conflicting urges. While Sciamma is gifted with an astoundingly innate grasp of the cadences, mood shifts, and body language of youth, she lacks an equally instinctive feel for narrative subtlety, resulting in frequent, frustrating friction between graceful observation and juddering plot mechanics.
But before the grinding of narrative cogs begins to drown out all else, a sense of casual, economical finesse pervades, as characters are introduced, aesthetic ideas established, and habitats explored in wonderfully organic fashion. One early sequence of deft tracking shots gradually singles out Marieme from her horde of homeward-bound football teammates, until she’s walking through the banlieue alone. Her purple hoody stubbornly refuses to blend in with the drab backdrop, ushering in a visual strategy whose almost artificially bright colors function like deliberate rejection of standard social-realist grayness. Later, when Marieme first encounters her sisters in crime, their leather/denim attire harmonizes impeccably with the rust and stains on the concrete behind them. As throughout the film, the camera cuts back and forth between tight framings of their faces before their boisterous journey through the malls and metro stations of central Paris is rendered once again in fluid tracking shots, the camera dancing around the carefree foursome to bind them together.
All this irresistibly slinky scene-setting comes to a joyous head in the film’s standout sequence, in which an illicit night spent in a hotel room culminates in the gang giving a full rendition of Rihanna’s “Diamonds.” Marieme is initially a timid observer, before a slow zoom into her face culminates in her getting up and joining in with her gyrating, lip-syncing friends as four become one, their elated faces bathed in shades of blue that carry the unnatural hue of a pop video. This effortlessly winning scene is where Sciamma’s true coup finds its clearest expression: By allowing her depiction of these young women to take its cues from the self-image they themselves desire, reality and aspiration flow into one another in a way that feels perfectly, painfully teenage. In a world where little is otherwise signposted, image structures life just as life structures image.
Yet even as the film is getting its groove on, a series of staccato-like plot developments begins to stem its freewheeling, naturalistic flow. As all the hanging out, back-talking, and giggling steadily recedes into the background, Marieme’s deeply unconvincing metamorphosis from wallflower to knife-wielding bully to hood warrior to drug dealer comes to the fore, a plot-point-dictated transformation entirely at odds with the sense of easy authenticity that previously dominated the film. Despite the expressive Touré’s best efforts, Marieme—or Vic, as she reinvents herself—increasingly feels like a different character in each individual scene. Tender toward her sister one minute, cowed by her one-dimensional brother the next, and more than capable of dealing with a one-note drug baron another, she soon resembles less a lived-in figure than a synthetic vehicle to carry ideas.
Although the underlying message that young women must constantly oscillate between different roles is potent, the rote depiction of the nature of these roles is damning. Sciamma also throws various clumsily stereotypical signposts of gender into the mix for good measure, with the various hairstyles/wigs that Marieme is saddled with to this end (cornrows to be one of the boys, straightened hair for glamour, a coquettish blond wig for dealing drugs) feeling obvious to the point of ridiculousness. Most frustratingly of all, Sciamma is clearly capable of getting her point across without the need for such overdetermination, as a beautifully observed bedroom encounter between Marieme and her boyfriend demonstrates: a boy silently removing his clothes when asked, a girl fully aware of the power she exerts, red fingernails against naked flesh, roles in perfect flux.
Much like its confused protagonist, Girlhood is at least willing to try out different things, functioning simultaneously as a nuanced exploration of girl-group dynamics, a genre-inflected cautionary tale, a feminist tract on the inevitability of role playing and a gaudy riposte to the colorlessness of the kitchen sink. Within the unwavering ranks of social realism, it’s always better to try and stand out from the crowd than being content to just blend in. But as Marieme and her pals could probably tell you, with so many different outfits at your disposal, it’s all too easy to forget which one suits you best.