It takes only a look to unsettle, even undo, a teenage girl. A look can be so many things at once: an ogling, a scrutiny, a provocation, a form of surveillance and control. In “Girlhood,” the roving eyes of older boys transform a throng of rowdy female athletes into a flock of disconcertingly meek mademoiselles, their heads sunk as low as they’ll go without dislocating any vertebrae. Those same girls can’t bear the aggressive stares of other girls, either. The hostile female gaze transfigures them into raving lunatics, suddenly seized by the urgent need to slam their knuckles into an enemy’s sneering, smirking face.
Fittingly enough, “Girlhood” itself began with a look. Writer-director Céline Sciamma (“Tomboy,” “Water Lilies”) found herself watching and wondering about the adolescent Afro-French girls who hang out in large groups at the mall and the subway stations around Paris. Unfortunately, the coming-of-age film that ensued rarely overcomes its well-intentioned, sociological regard; save for a few standout scenes of carefree elation and daring camaraderie, “Girlhood” is largely a grim and stilted study of oppression.
By age 16, Marieme’s (Karidja Touré) life already seems over. After effectively flunking out of high school, her options are dingy and scarce: cleaning hotel rooms alongside her mother, becoming a “shop slave,” or delivering drugs to rich white kids at parties. Other than a “normal” life, the thing Marieme wants most in the world is freedom from her domineering and violent older brother (Cyril Mendy).
A lifeline arrives in the form of Lady (Assa Sylla), Adiatou (Lindsay Karamoh) and Fily (Mariétou Touré), a trio of sleek-haired, fashion-forward, fellow drop-outs who pool their meager funds — probably the spoils of some petty crime — to escape the dreary housing projects where they all live to indulge in the minor luxuries of Gay Paree.
Like Baudelaire’s flâneur, the girls attain a kind of life force in looking and remarking and laughing, mostly about what other women are wearing. Their pleasure-seeking culminates in an euphoric night dancing to Rihanna’s “Diamonds” in tight-fitting, shoplifted dresses in a blue-tinted hotel room. Marieme gapes at her new friends before joining them, totally in love with all three of them, and with herself for being one of them.
“Girlhood” tenderly captures the vitality and utter importance of Marieme’s new friendships, while wisely suggesting that what saves her in the present will endanger her in the future. The film also perfectly depicts the fragility of new teenage relationships and how sudden bursts of intense bonding don’t always translate to sustained closeness. Lady withdraws from the group after she’s humiliated in a neighborhood fight, and Marieme’s efforts to re-conjure the magic of their first few weeks together contributes to the group’s increasing disintegration.
Sciamma reaches rare heights of nuance and honesty in exploring these rarely explored pockets of strained female friendship. Unfortunately, these scenes of quick friends even more quickly losing interest in each other also add up to a rather dramatically paunchy middle section that never quite regains the film’s earlier vim or vigor.
Like last year’s superb period romance “Belle,” “Girlhood” wears its thematic ambitions — to simultaneously tackle gender, race, and class — on its sleeve. Sciamma proffers her most insightful ideas about the misogynistic culture of the banlieues that Marieme is forced to navigate when she finally attempts a desperate gambit to pursue independence and self-reliance at all costs.
So great is Marieme’s risk-taking, and so ill-prepared is she to succeed, that the film’s final section, while not without hope, ends up reducing its protagonist into a textbook anecdote about how society keeps women/people of color/the poor down. That’s a far cry from the Marieme we first get to know and want to hold on to, the girl who sheds her inexperience but not her innocence while caressing a boy’s (Idrissa Diabaté) naked body in the dark, secure in the knowledge that, no matter what tomorrow may bring, the night belongs to her.