French film “Cuties”, which has unjustly faced lots of controversy on the Internet due to misguided promotion since it was released on Netflix a few days ago, deserves to be admired for a number of good reasons. While it is surely uncomfortable to watch at times because of its raw and forthright juxtaposition of adolescent sexuality and sexualized female physicality, the movie eventually comes to us a wild and vibrant coming-of-age drama packed with lots of energy and sensitivity, and this uncompromising piece of work will continue to challenge your mind even after it is over.
The story is mainly told through the viewpoint of Amy (Fathia Youssouf), an 11-year-old Senegalese French girl who recently moves to an apartment building located in a poor neighborhood area of Paris along with her mother and two younger brothers. Although their new residence is rather shabby, Amy and one of her two younger brothers are already clashing over having each own private place, and she wants to use one particular room, but her mother decided in advance that the room will be left empty for Amy’s father, who is currently in Senegal but will probably return some time later.
As following its heroine’s daily life, the movie gradually lets us get to know more the conservative religious environment surrounding her. Along with many other African Muslim women in their neighborhood, she and her mother often attend a prayer meeting supervised by Amy’s old aunt, who often emphasizes on how they should behave well as good and faithful Muslim women. Not so surprisingly, Amy usually gets bored and suffocated in this isolated environment, and it goes without saying that her mind is drifted away to somewhere without paying any attention to her aunt’s summon.
Meanwhile, something starts to draw Amy’s attention. On one day, she happens to encounter a girl of the same age in the apartment building, and she cannot help but impressed by how much this girl looks free and confident. She later meets this girl again in a local school to which she is transferred, and she comes to have more curiosity and envy as watching from the distance how this girl and three other girls around her look cool and pretty in their appearance.
Eventually, Amy clumsily approaches to these four girls, who let her join the group although they do not regard her that highly from the beginning. Compared to them, Amy looks quite plain in many aspects, so she is willing to do anything for being accepted by them, and the aforementioned girl, Angelica (Médina El Aidi-Azouni), does not mind helping Amy a bit as they come to spend more time together than expected.
Angelica and three other girls’ current agenda is getting accepted into an upcoming adolescent dance competition, and I must tell you in advance that their dancing is not that innocent and wholesome at all. Although still far from adulthood, the girls usually wear gaudy clothes and heavy make-ups, and they do not mind fully exhibiting their developing sexuality just for beating their possible competitors, most of whom are incidentally a little older compared to them.
Regardless of whether she is really comfortable with this or not, Amy finds herself more drawn into the very tricky status of her new friends because she feels less suffocated and frustrated whenever she spends time with them outside. At her home, there comes a significant domestic change involved with her father, and there is a restrained but painful scene where she happens to witness how much her mother will have to sacrifice because of that. While her mother keeps her appearance firm and steady as usual, Amy understandably becomes more exasperated and confused, and we are not so surprised as she commits a number of misdemeanors she probably never imagined before.
Maintaining its non-judgmental attitude as before, the movie stays close to its heroine’s confused state of mind which is further agitated by her burgeoning womanhood as well as her repressive life condition, and director/writer Maïmouna Doucouré, who received the Directing Award when the movie was shown in the World Cinema Dramatic Competition section of the Sundance Film Festival early in this year, adds a few unexpected moments of magic realism into this increasingly intense mix. I was amused a bit by a little key moment preceded by a sudden hallucinogenic sight, and I also appreciate a magical moment effortlessly delivered during the final shot of the film.
As its heroine goes wilder for her emotional ventilation, the movie gives us several deeply uncomfortable scenes including the one where she unwisely attempts to seduce a minor supporting character, but these scenes work in the context of her bumpy and turbulent emotional journey, and they never look exploitative even while certainly unnerving us a lot. As watching the climactic part involved with the aforementioned dance competition, I frequently winced and cringed, but I could not help but watch as sensing our heroine’s emotional struggle which is as harrowing as that of Rinko Kikuchi’s adolescent character in “Babel” (2006), and what happens next is totally understandable to say the least.
Doucouré also handles well her main cast members led by Fathia Youssouf, who is simply astounding in her nuanced natural performance which functions as the beating heart and soul of the film. While Maïmouna Gueye and Mbissine Therese Diop are solid as two different adult women in Amy’s daily life, Médina El Aidi-Azouni is also effective in her substantial supporting role, and Demba Diaw steals the show as Amy’s plucky younger brother (Note: For handling her child performers with enough caution and consideration on the set, Doucouré consulted with a child psychologist during filming).
On the whole, “Cuties” is definitely not something you can casually watch on Sunday afternoon, but it is still worthwhile to watch for its considerable emotional power, and it deserves to be compared with other notable female coming-of-age drama films such as Catherine Hardwicke’s “Thirteen” (2003) and Céline Sciamma’s “Girlhood” (2014). With this remarkable debut film of hers, Doucouré demonstrates here that she is another promising female filmmaker to watch, and it will be interesting to see how much she will advance during next several years.