WHAT IT’S ABOUT: 11-year-old Amy has just moved to a new building in Paris’s 19th arrondissement with her mother, Mariam, and two younger brothers. Theirs is a Muslim family of Senegalese extraction, and Amy’s father is currently back in Dakar, where he had chosen to take a second wife to Mariam’s chagrin. As Amy tries to get away from her conservative home, she is fascinated with a group of girls at her new school that call themselves “mignonnes,” “cuties.” The diverse group, led by the mercurial Angelica, wants to make it into a local dancing contest: dressed in sexy clothes, with makeup on their faces and grown-up dance moves, the “cuties” become Amy’s obsession. Maybe if she’s a sexy dancer, too, she can get some clout? When a chance encounter allows Amy to become friends with Angelica, and a stolen smartphone proves her invaluable to the group, a double life begins. At home, Amy is a pious daughter helping the family get ready for the big event. But with her new friends, she bares her midriff, imitates highly sexualized routines off the internet, and explores her budding sexuality. However, as the secret life becomes more demanding, and Amy’s desire for attention makes her do things that even the rest of the cuties question, the tween’s first identity crisis comes. And with it, everything around her might come tumbling down.
WHO MADE IT: Like Amy herself, Maïmouna Doucouré grew up in Paris in a Senegalese Muslim family. After receiving a degree in biology, she decided to take up filmmaking. Her breakout project, “Maman,” was a precursor to “Cuties” as it dealt with another French-Senegalese girl whose father brought in a second wife. The film swept awards at Sundance, Toronto, and César and paved the way for Doucouré to make her feature debut in “Cuties,” which she wrote and directed herself. The film showed at the Berlin Film Festival and won a directing award at Sundance.
The cast comprises of mostly first time or lesser-known actors. Of course, the main gems are the girls playing cuties. Fathia Youssouf has tempests within as Amy, while Médina El Aidi-Azouni as Angelica has a soft complexity that many adult actors would kill for. Esther Gohourou as Coumba, Ilanah Cami-Goursolas as Jess, and Myriam Hamma as Yasmin complete the diverse group with a range of characterizations and backgrounds. Feisty Coumba is also of African heritage, but from a more secular family, Jess is a white French girl who is quick to take sides, and Yasmin, from a well-off Arabic family, is not about to let anyone boss her around.
The performance of actress Maïmouna Gueye as Amy’s mother, Mariam, is a marvelous feat. Her character is torn between implied seniority that a young mother and ascending first wife has to present and a longing for something less schematic. Gueye first came to prominence for playing Antigone in theatre and participation in “Vagina Monologues,” and had staged her own one-woman plays on the subjects of the culture clash between Senegalese patriarchy and French society, indicting both.
The most prominent actor to grace this mostly female cast is Mbissine Thérèse Diop, who plays the auntie—the family’s matriarch. A native of Senegal and a textile worker by profession, she played the leading role in Ousmane Sembené’s film “Black Girl,” the newly independent country’s first feature film that also became the first Sub-Saharan African film to gain international prominence. Just like “Cuties,” it dealt with the existence of a young Senegalese woman in France, exploring neo-colonization through the prism of domestic work abroad.
WHY DO WE CARE: It’s very rare that a film can portray pre-adolescence or adolescence truthfully. After all, film crews invariably consist of adults, and even the most benevolent attempt to display the cusp of maturity accurately can be diminished by the need to make sense of it all. The painful beauty of “Cuties” lies in the fact that some of the film’s events were not straightened out to make more sense or better fit the usual character arcs that screenwriters are so obsessed with. Instead, they were allowed to develop organically. Everything that Amy does is cringe-worthy, yet absolutely believable because her character is full of contradictions, recklessness, and a strive for attention at the very heart of female pubescent existence. The dynamics of the girl gang, with the toxicity of relationships, the deep-seated grudges, the manipulations, are all portrayed sincerely, as well, and it’s no surprise that for Doucouré, the film is highly autobiographical. The experiences described in the film are lived, felt, and without having gone through all the injustices and tragedies of events that seem mundane to an adult, she would never be able to create a microcosm of juvenile anxiety, so convincing, explosive, and nuanced.
Conversations about being stuck between cultures, especially for immigrant kids, too often tend to become oversimplified. They tend to slant to one culture or the other as if a clear choice was possible. Doucouré very smartly shows that both in the Senegalese Muslim culture and in the superficial and hypersexualized Western capitalism, a young girl’s space to grow and thrive is limited. Amy struggles with the idea that in the context of her family, she would have to marry as soon as she comes of age, and then suffer the indignity of becoming just one of the wives. Meanwhile, in the context of the capitalist society, she is subjugated through faux liberation, where a promise of freedom is only guaranteed through consumption or being consumed. As Amy advances towards the path she’ll choose,—her third way,—Doucouré rages against the structures that co-opt and corrupt a girl’s budding sexuality. At the same time, she shows that a return to the family’s bosom and traditional values is also not possible unless there is respect for the girl’s personhood and agency.
WHY YOU NEED TO WATCH: Conversations about the film and its implications have been raging online. However, too many of them were stirred by bad actors or poorly informed viewers who were eager to jump to gung-ho conclusions about something they hadn’t seen. We’re not going to address them much in this review; if you’re interested in the moral panic, this article by Eileen Jones is much-recommended reading. However, the best thing that one can do is actually watch the film, research its history and context, and, most importantly, allow Doucouré and her crew speak for themselves, instead of succumbing to an imperialist reading of the piece.
It’s entirely legitimate to criticize Netflix for presenting “Cuties” in a dubious way, where torn away from the plot’s complexities, tweens in spandex become an image of child sexualization. It’s even quite probable that the marketing was done with full awareness. But the fact that Maïmouna Doucouré has become the scapegoat, with ugly insinuations against her flourishing, is very upsetting. Just like Amy in the film, who is absolutely adorable and very relatable as played by the majestically talented Youssouf, she becomes the unlikely anti-heroine because ganging up against her is much easier than pausing for a second to hear what she has to say. And she has to say a lot.
A masterful, brave, and highly affecting film, “Cuties” is a rare look into the torments of teenage years. A girl’s story that doesn’t try to sugarcoat and just lets you swallow it, uncomfortable, bitter, gross, and nauseating as it sometimes is. Because that’s what being a girl in a world that only wants youth and beauty as a means of production really implies. It’s a dangerous, treacherous landscape that one can only navigate if they’re lucky to have the right kind of support; otherwise, there will be many bumps, bruises, and perhaps even mortal danger. And “Cuties” is never afraid to show the full extents of it, with moments of thriller-like tension alternating with the instances of good-natured humor where girls look absolutely ridiculous in their attempts to imitate maturity.
“Cuties” is a valuable attempt to make a teachable, instructive moment out of the traumas inherent for girlhood, for adults and children alike, that is exceptionally well-researched and thoroughly thought out. And packaged as an absorbing, darkly funny, and sweetly sad story, it works on many levels, examining female adolescence, warts and all, in a way that’s profoundly critical and political but also true to life. After all, who better expound on the sociology of girlhood than a bunch of girls, young and grown-up?
Director: Maïmouna Doucouré
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