A bold visual scheme – dominated by rich colors and nightclub lighting – dominates Girlhood. And that’s appropriate, for boldness defines its main character. Marieme (Karidja Touré) is a French teen struggling to juggle a variety of identities. In the apartment she shares with her family, she’s something of a surrogate mother to her two younger sisters, as their mother is often away at work and her older brother barely notices her. (When he does acknowledge her presence, it’s with a slap.) At school, she’s placed on a vocational track that feels like a sentence to a life of drudgery. And so instead she seeks escape and solace with a trio of tough, aggressive girls given to fighting and shoplifting. She seems to find a sense of direction – an angry confidence certainly emerges – even if the path seems headed for a dead end.
I wish Touré and writer-director Céline Sciamma had been able to evoke Marieme’s inner life with a bit more precision. We’re almost always on the outside of her implacable exterior, which makes her transition from caring sister to violent thug, while believable, feel abrupt. That said, the movie manages a couple of wonderful moments in which the carefree nature of childhood is held in bittersweet tension with the yearning to be an adult. When Marieme and her friends rent a classy hotel room for a party, I love how they don the cocktail dresses they’ve stolen but never leave the room. Dancing and singing to Rihanna’s “Diamonds,” bathed in the deep blue glow of Sciamma’s camera, they desperately want to be grown-ups, but are still essentially playing dress-up.
The third act of Girlhood is a bit labored, as plot machinations try to turn up the suspense, but I love the final shot. At first the camera appears to have left Marieme behind, but then she unexpectedly re-enters the frame. There’s a certain hopefulness there that struck me as just right; no matter what the circumstance, this isn’t a girl – no, a young woman – who should be counted out.