Girlhood (2015) - Can't Stop the Movies
Can't Stop the Movies

Girlhood (2015)

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Vic is out of options.  The school authorities told her the best she'll do is in vocational training, her mother leaves the home in the hands of Vic's brutal brother, and she has few friends to lean on.  After leaving the school she's called over by the charismatic Lady, who's curious about Vic's cranky demeanor.  Their friendship forms the basis of Girlhood, written and directed by Céline Sciamma, and stars Karidja Touré, Assa Sylla, and Cyril Mendy.

Bright like a diamondIt’s 2005 and a friend sits on my papasan chair.  His face is wet from tears because he doesn’t feel like he belongs at our workplace.  A week later he tells me I understand him and this means more to him than I’ll ever know.  Nine years later he calls me a sanctimonious prick and the friendship ends.  The path from the start to finish of our relationship was never set in stone, but clear in retrospect.  How we become the person our first steps lead us to be is always clear in retrospect.

Girlhood, the stunning film from screenwriter and director Céline Sciamma, understands this with a clarity and poetry in vision lacking in most coming of age stories.  Her movie is sparse in surrounding, but rich in emotional texture and layered with performances so subtle you might be surprised to find just how much they stick in your heart.  It’s early, but unlikely many other films in 2015 will hit the rich highs of Girlhood.

The big success in Girlhood is how the development in each character is felt and seen but never expressed directly in the dialogue.  Backgrounds are bare, sporting few decorations, and usually presented in a solid color – be it the cold gray of the concrete or a blue light illuminating the features of the group Vic (Karidja Touré) has become a part of.  This surrounding allows Sciamma to focus her camera in on the subtle expressions and mood shifts of each character by tightening the frame on their bodies.  You can predict where Girlhood is going if you pay close attention to the magnificent silent acting, look at the initial unease of Vic in her surrounding, or how Lady (Assa Sylla) quickly averts her gaze from her group after losing a fight.

Girlhood, be it between sisters, mothers, friends, or rivals, is challenged and changed in quiet ways.

Girlhood, be it between sisters, mothers, friends, or rivals, is challenged and changed in quiet ways.

This is a group which is warm, inviting, and doomed to crumble at one point or another.  But Sciamma is not interested in their fracture, but the way they held together for so long.  She sets major events in the story in unassuming ways, be it a 3-minute lip synch of Vic and the group to Rihanna’s “Diamonds”, or a football tussle which opens the beginning of the film showing two sets of fully padded women playing for keeps on the field.  Both quietly establish the dynamics of the groups, making their skin the same shade of dark blue, but later lighting their skin to show that their shared circumstances do not make them all the same kind of people.

Vic and Lady both constantly examine themselves in the eyes of others, and the cinematography by Crystel Fournier keeps this clear and wonderful.  One beautiful shot has Vic beaming at Lady’s confidence in a hotel room with one half of the screen devoted to Vic’s reflection and the other to Lady’s strong frame.  Contrast this to when Vic is sadly cleaning rooms with her mother and her image overtakes her mother while her face contorts to sadness.  In the former, Vic is seeing parts of Lady she would like to emulate in her way, and in the latter she is getting a glimpse of a future she does not want.  This same glimpse is hinted at in the way Vic is framed with her boyfriend as Vic’s face is in side-profile and his looms in the same half from behind her.  She wants to keep herself, just as she wants to lose herself in her boyfriend.

These struggles of identity keep Girlhood in a constantly emotionally engaging state even if the onscreen events are uneventful.  We’re constantly asking just what these girls are thinking, where their lives are going, and how they are growing by examining the silence and poise within the frame.  What Sciamma has done is difficult, as she communicated a torrent of maturity and development through experience, not speeches.  True, our experiences may give us the tools to speak eloquently in the long run, but not everyone communicates that way, and Vic’s world is one where a glance held for one second longer than the last day speaks louder than any yelling ever could.

Layered figures and reflections provide strong hints about who wants to become what.

Layered figures and reflections provide strong hints about who wants to become what.

Vic and her story are so rich and the performances so nuanced it’s hard to imagine what Girlhood would have been without them.  But the truth is, if Sciamma did not set out with the intention of casting black girls in the roles, we would not have gotten the same movie.  This isn’t to say any other version of Girlhood would have lacked in merit, but what Sciamma understands is that cinema needs diversity not to fill an arbitrary quota.  Instead it’s because the little-examined voices of the world speak to common experiences in different ways, and highlighting this is important for our collective social and cultural growth as a species.

I think about the way Vic communicates her growing comfort with her skin by shedding herself of the “girly” image presented of her.  Or how her boyfriend’s naked body is lit in such a way to accentuate Vic’s desire, not his, and when he is exposed we understand the lust building inside of her.  There’s Vic’s brother (Cyril Mendy), the rarely seen but always felt enforcer of the streets and her family, whose few seconds and tight one-armed hug around Vic explain his strengths and insecurities so well.  Then there’s the aching final shot as a disillusioned Vic seems ready to disappear into the blurry background only to come triumphantly back into the frame.

Girlhood shows that any coming of age story, no matter how well-mined, has fresh dimension to share if we only expand the voices allowed to speak.  Sciamma’s gorgeous film took a chance on non-professional performers who had something about themselves they were able to give so openly to the screen.  I hope other studios take notice, and that this isn’t the last we see of Sciamma, Touré, or the others who made Girlhood such a unique experience.

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Tail - GirlhoodGirlhood (2015)

Screenplay written and directed by Céline Sciamma.
Starring Karidja Touré, Assa Sylla, and Cyril Mendy.

Posted by Andrew

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