The players take to the field, and a game of American football unfolds, not with the intense brawn one would come to expect, but with a freewheeling liberation that favors love of the game over a competitive spirit. Observant viewers will know within seconds the players in the opening scene of the poignant French import Girlhood are all teenage girls. Young women enjoying a moment of leisure, establishing a sense of community. Writer-director Céline Sciamma (Tomboy) wants you to feel the thrill of togetherness, because she's about to take it away.
The scene that follows shows the teens, predominantly of African descent, walking home in a group. This banlieue on the outskirts of Paris is their neighborhood, but as the girls' number begin to dwindle, a sense of unease begins to creep up, and suddenly it feels as if they're strangers who took a wrong turn in an unsafe part of town. The propensity that some harm could befall them as more and more veer off weighs heavily on them. In this working-class setting, Sciamma conveys with naturalistic immediacy, it's their gender that renders them second-class citizens.
Suddenly, Marieme, the headstrong yet vulnerable center of this powerful kitchen sink drama, is all by herself, eyeing Ismaël (Idrissa Diabaté), the boy she likes but who nevertheless is off limits to her, because he's her older brother Djibril's homeboy/business associate. Marieme, played, in an auspicious screen debut, by Karidja Touré, has 101 problems on her mind. The 16-year-old is flunking out at school, needs to take care of her younger sisters while her mom's at work – which feels like it's all the time – and, to top it all off, has to deal with Djibril (Cyril Mendy), who lords over his siblings with an oppressive sense of authority. His bossy-pants arrogance, not to mention his alarming use of brute force as a disciplinary measure, is symptomatic of the larger problem Marieme faces.
The outlook's not much brighter as far as her academic future is concerned. The camera remains fixated on Touré as an offscreen counselor, a disembodied bearer of bad news, informs her she won't be allowed to repeat her current school year a third time, and must therefore choose a vocational school instead of going on to France's equivalent of senior high school. What seems, at first glance, to be a school official giving an underperforming student a reality check turns out to be a pointed indictment of an educational system that places minorities at a disadvantage, using a curriculum tailored for well-off students to curtail the prospects of someone like Marieme. She refuses to abide by anyone's script, and in her aimlessness crosses paths with Lady (Assa Sylla), Adiatou (Lindsay Kamaroh) and Fily (Mariétou Touré). The standoffish trio size her up, and Lady asks her to hang with them. Marieme initially rebuffs them, but shortly after she notices Ismaël chatting with them and changes her mind.
Sciamma depicts Marieme's ensuing transformation, from timid wallflower to self-assured go-getter, with nonjudgmental empathy. Lady introduces her new protegée to a world of sticky-fingers shopping mall outings, of territorial girlfights that make or break reputations, and Marieme soaks it all in like a sponge, while at the same time developing her own identity, one that's informed but not dominated by her surroundings. The film drives home this notion during an intimate scene between Marieme and Ismaël where it's the latter who's the camera's object of desire. Despite the sobering subject matter, Girlhood never feels like a chore, precisely because for Sciamma, whose work here recalls the likes of Ken Loach and Matthieu Kassovitz, the characters come before the issues … and these characters like to dance to Rihanna's “Diamonds.” In the film's most iconic sequence, a night at a hotel room becomes a jam session when they begin lip-syncing the catchy song, then launch into an impromptu performance that's alone worth the price of admission.
Girlhood's title may bring to mind Richard Linklater's Boyhood – its French title, Bande de filles, is a lot more representative of the film's gangland subculture – but the film only bears superficial similarities to Sciamma's finely nuanced character study. It's a heady mix of social commentary and coming-of-age fable that works because she refuses to turn it into a civics lesson.
Girlhood is now showing exclusively at the Miami Beach Cinematheque. There are screenings scheduled until March 29.