French word ‘Banlieue’ originally meant a middle-class suburban area in the vicinity of big cities like Paris, but its meaning was modified around the 1970s along with the increased influx of foreign immigrants in France. These immigrants, most of whom were from Arab and African regions, and their next generations born in France have mostly been stuck in poor suburban areas of low-income housing projects, and their grim, vicious cycle of poverty trap in banlieues has been remained as the main cause of numerous social problems including high unemployment and crime rates.
Céline Sciamma’s “Girlhood”, which is intended as the third film of her trilogy after “Water Lilies” (2007) and “Tomboy” (2011), observes the life of an adolescent girl who has been coping with such a poor environment like that. During the striking opening scene which shows an American football match being held on a local sports ground during one evening, Marieme (Karidja Touré) enjoys its every dynamic minute along with her schoolmates, but then we notice how their joy and excitement are gradually dissipated as they return to their glum housing project neighborhood. They are quietly scattered one by one, and we soon see Marieme walking to her home alone at the end of this scene.
Watching her at home with her family, we get to know a bit about them. Their main income comes from her mother, and she is usually absent while working as a cleaning lady at some hotel. Marieme’s older brother is the de facto patriarch of the family even though he does not seem to have a real job, and this abusive guy is not very nice to his sister. In case of Marieme’s two younger sisters, they are on good terms with their older sister, and they always provide a little precious comfort in her unhappy life.
Marieme wants to go to high school rather than vocation school, but her school counselor reminds her that it is already too late for her to get any possible chance for that. As frustrated about this, she happens to encounter a gang of girls outside her school. They are Lady (Assa Sylla), Adiatou (Lindsay Karamoh), and Fily (Marietou Toure), and they are willing to accept Marieme as their new member. Marieme is reluctant about this offer at first, but she eventually joins them when she sees that this can be a better opportunity for approaching closer to Ismaël (Idrissa Diabaté), a nice boy who has been acquainted with her through her brother.
As hanging more around her new friends, Marieme gradually learns how to be more aggressive and intimidating as a gang member. She adapts herself to their hair style and attire, and we see her clumsily but successfully extorting pocket money from a female student. She and her gangs sometimes spend their own private time in a nice hotel room, and there is a wonderful moment when they lively dance together along with Rihanna’s “Diamonds” (Although there was a concern about the copyright issue during the production, Rihanna generously allowed her song to be used at a relatively cheap fee after Sciamma showed this scene to her).
It goes without saying that her new friends are not a very good influence for her in objective view, but we also notice how Marieme becomes more confident and less shy about herself than before. When Lady goes through humiliation after being defeated by some other tough girl in their neighborhood, Marieme goes for a payback time although, as Lady points out to her in the aftermath, it is more for herself than her friend. She also approaches to Ismaël more actively; when she visits his home in the middle of one night, she surely knows where she is going, and she does not hesitate at all to take the control of what is going to happen between them.
While it is darker and grittier compared to the relaxed summer mood of “Tomboy”, “Girlhood” maintains a calm, objective attitude in its close, intimate observation of its young heroine’s emotional journey. It is curious about how she is shaped by her environment, and it empathizes with how she comes to make choices which will affect her life in one way or another. We sense her excitement and aspiration as she goes through her changes, and then we feel her desperation and frustration as she faces her harsh reality again and again. Later in the story, she decides to work for some shady guy just for getting out of her suffocating neighborhood, but then she finds herself being against the wall again as a woman with poor background and no good job opportunity.
As the movie encloses itself in her rough world which is vividly presented with the authentic sense of place and people, Marieme comes to us as a smart independent girl grasping for a clearer idea of herself, and Karidja Touré, who had no previous acting experience before like many of the cast members in the film, gives an electrifying debut performance full of details to convey the small and big changes inside her character. When Marieme coldly threatens a minor character at one point, we are shocked but not very surprised by this sudden behavior of hers, for we have already sensed the change from Touré’s unadorned acting exuded from her open, expressive face.
As the other tough girls in the film, Assa Sylla, Lindsay Karamoh, and Marietou Toure also deserve to be mentioned for their good supporting performances, and they and Touré are impeccably spontaneous in their interactions on the screen. Look at a certain conversation scene where they effortlessly shift from one mood to another mood with no misstep, and you will see why girls are usually better than boys in case of handling their friendship matters.
When I watched “Tomboy” in early 2012, I was impressed by its sensitive and thoughtful direction, and Céline Sciamma did it again here in her another interesting coming-of-age drama to watch. Although nothing is certain for Marieme even in the end, there is a tiny glimpse of hope shown at the very end of the film, and her face right before the end credits is all the movie needs for making a brief but powerful ending to linger on us. I guess there will be more difficulties on her way, but this girl will survive – with her spirit as spry as before.