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Review: 'Girlhood' is a gang movie-turned-cryptic art film

No, it's not the female, French, black "Girlhood."

‘Girlhood’
Director:
Celine Sciamma
Stars: Karidja Toure, Assa Sylla
Rating: NR
3 (out of 5) Globes

What’s more misleading? That “Girlhood” is called “Girl Gang” back in its native France, and its American title is a bald, old school ploy to lure audiences into what they assume is a female “Boyhood”? (It’s not.) Or that a film with such a lurid (original) title turns into a cryptic art film that eludes easy definition or even description? Debatably, “Girlhood” is a more apt name, given that writer-director Celine Sciamma is playing with gender norms, using a typically male genre for a tale about young girls and forcing us to question our preconceptions about what constitutes femininity and masculinity. That's the kind of movie it is.

But yes, nice, young Marieme (Karidja Toure) does join a gang. After trouble at home leads to trouble at school, she happens upon three tough girls, led by the charismatic one named Lady (Assa Sylla). They aren’t really a gang. They shake up students for lunch money and get into fights with rival gangs. But they’re also into hugs and dancing to Rihanna. Their bark is often worse than their bite, and most of their bad behavior amounts to talking smack or messing with people. Hailing from a mostly black neighborhood, they at one point go to a department store and are quickly racially profiled. They guilt trip the embarrassed, white sales assistant, then laugh as they leave, enjoying what little satisfaction they can get from a system so deeply, irrevocably stacked against them.

Were this a classic American gang movies — ones in which “Girlhood” is noticeably well-versed — Marieme would be the innocent one who gets sucked into ne’er-do-wells’ orbit and has to escape. “Girlhood” often plays like a clinical, detached version of one of those films — all carefully chosen cinemascope shots where movie affectations play out in deadpan. But it’s playing with expectations. Marieme even ditches her girls prematurely. Around the halfway mark Marieme grows restless with her colleagues and reinvents herself as a drug mule for a fearsome dealer. And she keeps on reinventing herself, as she did when she met her gang, strapping on a blond wig, hiding her long locks in cornrows, wrapping up her chest to appear more masculine.

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Sciamma explored, with great sensitivity and a remarkable lack of sensastionalism, young lesbianism in films like “Water Lillies” and “Tomboys,” so it’s not surprising that questions of sexual and gender fluidity arise in “Girlhood.” But it’s a more mysterious exploration of these ideas, one rooted less in character and more in a free-form, heady idea — as though the film had reinvented itself, just as Marieme has repeatedly reinvented herself, and in less than a year’s time (as opposed to a dozen).

"Girlhood" leaves its own trajectory a little too vague, or even a bit too easily solved. But it does seem to be trying tobottle up a period in teenage years when the self feels scarily and thrillingly in flux — when one’s young version is torched, making way for another. It’s a film universal and specific — specific to girls, but also to low income black teenage girls in France right now, who must grow up faster, aim for independence before anyone else and transform — courtesy Toure’s remarkably subtle, sneaky performance — from a blank slate into someone with steely, disarming confidence.

Follow Matt Prigge on Twitter@mattprigge
 
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