Putting on make-up before taking part in a fight may not seem the most logical thing to do, but for the gang of girls in Girlhood, c’est la vie: dolling yourself up and getting ready for a bruising are one and the same.
Marieme (first-time actor Karidja Touré) is a young black teen, growing up on a rough estate on the outskirts of Paris. Tormented by her controlling brother and largely ignored by an indifferent mother, she joins a gang of similarly minded girls; together, they run amok with fashion and flick-knives as their weapons, marking their territory through the projects as they grow in notoriety. But will a life of petty crime and assumed acceptance give Marieme the life she craves?
Everything about Girlhood reeks of social realism, but nothing about it is stuck on Earth. As the film’s incredible electronica score rises and falls, fresh lyricism is breathed into this largely fantastic character piece. As Marieme and her new sisters bond over Rihanna, or steal dresses from clothes shops, everything about Céline Sciamma’s movie soars; it’s only in the film’s final act, where it moves away from the narrative it’s so carefully forged, that it stumbles. But in trying to be structurally inventive, much about it is still to be admired – but it’s best to focus on the film’s strongest moments: a crowd of bickering girls taking trash-talking to a new artform; the delicate spattering of patriotism that infuses the film’s heart with a warm energy.
Not surprisingly, this is Touré’s show; her innocence as a first-time actor feeds generously into her vulnerable performance here, a naturalistic grounding for us to become fully invested in. Girlhood is perhaps better described by its original French title, Bande de Filles; this movie is certainly about growing up, but it’s more about who you spend growing up with.