My job entails watching many, many films. All the time. People envy us Film Programmers but believe me when I say we have to wade through hours and hours of drivel before we find films that make us glad we do what we do. Don’t get me wrong, I love my job and I like a surprisingly high number of the films I watch over a year but when you see so much you inevitably become a bit desensitised and what I have named my ‘Bullshit Threshold’ becomes a little lower as every year passes.
Sometimes, though, a film comes along that simply knocks you off your feet. Girlhood is one of those.
I want to talk about how it cuts across class, race and culture barriers and transcends all of the clichés about representations of teenage girls on film but I’m worried that that will make it sound worthy and harsh. When what it really is is a mesmerising, life-affirming, terrifying, desperate and wonderful celebration and examination of female friendship in all its empowering and disempowering ugly/beautiful glory.
And do you have ANY idea how rare that is in cinema? Take my word for it.
With a cast of entirely unprofessional actors and a story about the complex trap of poverty, race, class and gender, Celine Sciamma has created the most compelling and enjoyable film I have seen in years and in the character of Marieme, the bravest girl I may have ever seen on film. Failing school and being denied another chance at education she is abandoned at home to an abusive elder brother and forced to try to protect her younger sisters. When she falls in with a gang of local girls who recognise her vulnerability you start to wonder if this is going to be another one of those poverty porn films made by comfortable middle-class directors, but no. Hell no. This is going somewhere else entirely.
The film starts to reveal just how empowering, supportive and, dare I say it, loving these friendships can be. When I think about the language of cinema and the way women, but particularly teenage girls are represented my heart feels so heavy. So much of what we watch is centred around heterosexual agency and everything is driven by the very proscribed and normalised ‘love interest’. Girlhood just strips all of that away and there comes a point when watching it that you suddenly realise just how refreshing and honest that is – and how completely unusual. There is a scene where the girls plan a night out. They prepare by going shoplifting and get some beautiful dresses that they would never be able to afford, they book a hotel room, buy some rum and coke and you assume they are going to get ready and go out clubbing – that would be the norm in a film right? But these girls are only interested in spending the night dressing up for themselves, staying in the room and dancing with each other. They don’t need an audience of boys or anyone else for that matter. The night is about togetherness, kinship and belonging. This scene is one of the most emotionally true, beautifully wrought depictions of teenage girlhood ever committed to screen. The fact that the night is about themselves is so refreshing and rings so true. Female friendships, forged at this particular time of life transcend time, culture and place and reminded me of how liberating, all-encompassing and terrifyingly intense it can be.
Don’t get me wrong, the film isn’t at all about hearts and flowers and the power of The Sisterhood – it is hard-hitting and honest about just how stacked life is against these girls and how it is nigh-on impossible for them to break out of the terrible life that is already mapped out for them. But, but, but it offers a real glimmer of hope for Marieme made all the more important because she is a survivor on her own terms.
Girlhood is great but, more than this, it feels important.
Anna Navas, Film Programmer
Girlhood is showing at Plymouth Arts Centre Cinema from 3-9 July