‘Cuties’ Film Review: Provocative Coming-of-Age Tale Makes for an Explosive Debut

Sundance 2020: Writer-director Maïmouna Doucouré hits the scene with the story of an 11-year-old Muslim girl torn between tradition and internet-era popularity

A perfect illustration of growing up today, French director Maïmouna Doucouré’s spirited debut “Cuties” assesses the transition from childhood to adolescence by pointing its lens at an 11-year-old girl at the crossroads of tradition and personal discovery. It’s the type of first feature that heralds an indelible directorial voice.

Echoes of Céline Sciamma’s “Girlhood,” Mati Diop’s “Atlantics,” or Nijla Mumin’s “Jinn” are strident, but the age gap separating the teens in those efforts and the young lead here strongly distinguishes this new film from its forebears. Although not breaking untraveled ground, “Cuties” is a necessary new entry among these idiosyncratic narratives centered on black girlhood going against the grain of the status quo, and no less noteworthy for that.

Exposed to loads of instantly reachable information, both detrimental and advantageous, kids raised on online gratification inevitably mature at a faster rate, or so at first glance seems to be the case of Aminata Diop (Fathia Youssouf) — Amy for short — the daughter of Senegalese immigrants in the marginalized suburbs of modern-day Paris.

Her traditional Muslim upbringing imposes gender-based restrictions, which Amy begins to reject when the allure of rebelliousness and camaraderie presents itself in the form of four ethnically diverse schoolmates who call themselves “Cuties” and are also a competitive dance crew. Maïmouna emboldens these tweens with a rowdiness and even raunchiness that has too often been reserved for boys on screen.

There’s a refreshing impetus to not only their choreography but also their authority-defying attitude, and Amy, accustomed to strict boundaries, becomes obsessively enthralled to get a taste of that unknown freedom. In Angelica (a vivacious Médina El Aidi-Azouni), the daughter of Latin American immigrants — at this tender age, she has already internalized that she’s failed to satisfy her parents’ expectations — Amy finds her closest friend and an entry point into the Cuties.

At that age, one can’t fathom parting with the valuable lifeline of a contemporary’s validation of one’s personality, but in Amy’s case, her search for acceptance comes in reaction to the powerlessness to which she’s witnessed her mother Mariam (Maïmouna Gueye) be subjected. As their belief system permits, her father has taken a second wife, leaving her mother to save face and partake in the wedding preparations while drowning in humiliation and hurt.

To manifest Amy’s understanding of womanhood in the context of her family’s background, Maïmouna employs heart-rending poignancy and nuanced humor. A tragically beautiful early scene sees Amy hiding under a bed hearing her mother wail and sharing in her pain, and a later one, dealing with insecurity about her appearance, shows her observing women’s voluptuous bodies — comparing herself, but also reassured that maybe she will one day look like them. Other beats, like her first period, are expected but irreproachably honest.

Bombarded with hyper-sexualized imagery in audiovisual content, Amy envisions a dance routine, featuring grinding and twerking, that’s sure to be deemed inappropriate but that, in her mind, will put to rest the notion that she and her friends are children. Such desire to attain the agency that comes with adulthood is not new, but it has inevitably been precipitated more dangerously because of the internet.

No other sub-genre has been more wildly revolutionized through the proliferation of social media, and the digital alter egos we’ve all built for ourselves, than the coming-of-age film. Cellphone access, the director knows, has forever transformed human development and milestones, which no longer transpire as they did just a few years ago. Amy longs to be liked and is unfortunately aware of how visual objectification generates popularity.

Maïmouna’s confident writing and directing straddle that delicate subject and ensure that cinematographer Yann Maritaud never shoots the Cuties’ presentations or self-recorded videos with anything resembling seduction, instead highlighting the girls’ learned exaggeration and their juvenile understanding of what being sexy should look like. Playfulness and saturated colors defuse the provocative pop songs, without judging Amy and her girlfriends for being influenced by the digitally-driven world into which they were born.

Youssouf gives a high-voltage performance bursting with quiet angst and volatile dynamism. Throughout Amy’s desperate plight to fit in and to disconnect from what’s occurring at home, Maïmouna refrains from having the character verbally explode; instead her physicality and concrete actions relay her internal unrest, similar to what Royalty Hightower does in Anna Rose Holmer’s “The Fits.” No facile moralist choices are made in “Cuties,” as Amy’s risky choices range from theft to considering letting someone die to stay cool.

There’s great merit in Maïmouna’s command of a tonally treacherous story and a principal cast of mostly first-timers playing true to life Gen Z girls with complexity not suitable for their counterparts on the Disney Channel. Bolstered by an infectiously reckless joie de vivre and artfully handled hard-hitting truths, “Cuties” diffuses the impulse to dismiss it as just one more example of a trend. Its final shot is a cinematic chef’s kiss that wraps Amy’s innocence in a safe embrace, letting us know that, thankfully, her ability for wonderment hasn’t been entirely destroyed.