"Girlhood" takes one of contemporary film's most familiar themes, a teenage girl's coming of age, and makes it feel like we've never truly seen it before. Beautifully observed, precisely directed and acted with wonderful conviction, it pulls us into the life of its protagonist in a deeply involving way.
A major success at the Directors' Fortnight section of Cannes, "Girlhood" (original French title "Bande de Filles," or "Band of Girls") echoes Jean-Luc Godard's classic "Bande a Part" ("Band of Outsiders") and its story of the strivings of those who live on the margins.
"Girlhood" is the third strong work, after "Water Lilies" and "Tomboy," by writer-director Céline Sciamma, a filmmaker who focuses on the struggles and conflicts of young women in today's pressure-filled society.
Though its acting is uniformly on point, "Girlhood" was especially fortunate in finding Karidja Touré, who had never acted before, for its charismatic protagonist.
As a 16-year-old girl who tries on radically different identities, even names, like she was trying on clothes that might or might not fit, Touré has an instantaneously empathetic presence that carries us with her no matter how difficult, even perilous, her character's situation becomes.
Playing the classic individual who wants something more for herself, even if she can't define exactly what that is, the actress engages us completely in her character's quest to make a life she can be satisfied with. We may see the traps in some of her choices sooner than she does, but we also see, thanks to filmmaker Sciamma's ability, how these could appear to be the most plausible options at the time.
"Girlhood's" vivid opening sequence is typical of Sciamma's instinct for doing things differently, for what we see is so unexpected it takes us a while to take it in: Two teams of French school girls, completely outfitted down to helmets and pads, are playing a game of American football, running and passing with abandon and skill.
But the result of the game is not competition but camaraderie as the teams clearly exult in each other's good work when the contest is over. Not for the last time, we feel the power of sisterhood as a very real and essential force and comfort in these young women's lives.
Part of that group is Marieme, played by Touré, a young woman of color living in far from ideal circumstances in one of the dicey banlieue neighborhoods on the outskirts of Paris.
Though she is close with a younger sister she shares a room with, both women are terrorized by a tyrant of an older brother who runs their apartment while their exhausted, overworked single mother cleans hotel rooms to support the family.
"Girlhood's" plot kicks into gear with a shock. Marieme is at the age when French students are put on different paths, with the more academic going to high school and the others to trade schools. Marieme wants desperately to go to high school, but she doesn't have the grades and is flatly told it's out of the question.
Seething with fury, she catches the eye of a trio of tough, leather-jacketed adolescents led by Lady (Assa Sylla). Unlike Marieme and her long braid, these three have straightened their hair and display an attitude rich with posturing bravado.
Soon Marieme is a look-alike member of the gang, even bullying a younger girl into giving up her lunch money. The transformation is complete when Lady gives her a new name, Vic, short for victoire, or victory.
Lady and her friends may not seem like ideal role models, but "Girlhood" emphasizes how much their hanging out together does for their morale and sense of self-worth. Best of all are the moments in a rented hotel room, where the girls take bubble baths, lip-sync along with Rihanna's "Diamonds" and in general fantasize about the plush life they may never have.
Vic also has her eye on a particular young man named Ismael (Idrissa Diabaté), but he is a good friend of her brother, and the rules of the neighborhood say this kind of relationship is a no-no. So the stolen moments between these are especially sweet for feeling so vulnerable.
Changing from Marieme to Vic is far from the last transformation we see this determined individual go through. More than anything, "Girlhood" celebrates the energy and passion for life of these young women. We cannot be sure where they will end up, but their struggles are experiences we are not likely to forget.
No MPAA rating.
Running time: 1 hour, 52 minutes.
Playing: Sundance Sunset, West Hollywood; Laemmle's Playhouse 7, Pasadena.