girlhood1[xrr rating=3.5/5]Lost amid the torrents of stunned grief, righteous anger and free-speech defensiveness unleashed by the recent Charlie Hebdo shootings has been the plight of Paris’ working-class Muslims, who seem poised to become further marginalized in the wake of this horrible tragedy. Some much-needed perspective comes via the inadvertently relevant release of Celine Sciamma’s stunning Girlhood, set amid the impoverished banlieues which ring the city, in which many new immigrants find their access to French culture hopelessly obstructed. In documenting this world, the consistently female-focused Sciamma profiles one isolated group nested within another: the adolescent daughters of Islamic West African immigrants, whose exclusion from mainstream society is heightened by the stifling paternalism of their own.

Befitting these restrictive circumstances, 16-year-old Marieme (Karidja Touré) begins the film as a meek, inexperienced child, charged with the care of her two younger sisters, menaced by a harsh older brother who sees it as his duty to assure her chasteness. But she’s also a strong woman with a budding sense of autonomy, as confirmed by the film’s strange, stylized introduction, a slow-motion ballet of young French girls playing American football in full gear, the first of many uniforms worn by the increasingly chameleonic Marieme. This resolute force keeps her bristling against the prospect of following in the drab footsteps of her mother, who spends long nights cleaning offices, a task with which the daughter sometimes helps, in addition to her other domestic duties. After being forced off the academic track at school due to poor grades, Marieme avoids a bleak vocational school future by dropping out, relentlessly reordering the outlines of her personality in order to set a new life into motion.

Following Marieme as she slips from one persona to another in search of hope and structure, Girlhood is a study of juvenile females dealing with identity issues along the road to adulthood. It merges the concepts of Sciamma’s two previous films, the insightful adolescent examination of Water Lilies and the gender-focused investigation of Tomboy. In the former, the subject was the stratification of popularity based on bodily development, and how these assigned roles establish behavioral templates which linger on through life. The latter focused on a girl trying to assert control of her destiny by pretending to be a boy, working off her basic understanding of male traits as a clear shortcut to independence. Examining a similar period of hesitant transition, Girlhood is equally concerned with roles and poses as instructive devices, as Marieme cycles through a series of male and female traits, swinging from fiercely flaunted sexuality to breasts hidden beneath gauze wrap, attempting to cobble together an aggregate adult self without the help of suitable role models.

This structure often feels didactic, with each segment accompanied by a sudden shift in behavior and dress, the core of Marieme’s personality obscured beneath these artificial shells. Yet this is part and parcel of the film’s continuing analysis of blank slate roles as safe spaces for young women to figure out ways around traditional barriers of gender and race, with the obscuring of a soft central self a function of the character, who seems determined to leave her old self behind and enter a maze of new assumed identities. This pursuit is communicated through an escalating series of small, beautiful scenes wherein the character’s own perspective is communicated through the sense of glamorized spectacle accorded to otherwise sad moments. Most of these occur in private, as a brother’s militant masculinity softens for a moment, or four girls perform a Rihanna song in a hotel room paid for by cash cadged from bullied fellow students, wearing stolen new clothes with the anti-theft tabs still attached. They’re all dressed up with no place to go, lacking the agency to actually connect to the world of their fantasies, prevented from building toward a new future, instead hiding out from the ominous, unpromising one which awaits them.

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