Despite what you might expect from a film about roving packs of French girl gangs, Girlhood is far from an on-the-nose melodrama with explicit messages about the powder keg of poverty & puberty. Instead, it’s a brutally melancholy slow burner about an especially shitty youth with dwindling options for escape. It’s far more open-ended & hazy than I was anticipating, opting more for a gradual unravelling than a grand statement. It’s that aversion to closure & moralizing that makes the film special when it easily could’ve gone through the motions of rote Lifetime Movie schmaltz.
That’s not to say that Girlhood is all grays, haze, and sadness. It certainly does have it’s . . . bright, shining moments. Specifically, the scene where the central gang is dancing to Rihanna’s “Diamonds” alone in a fancy hotel room while sporting shoplifted dresses is a transcendent dream of a respite that briefly shakes the dull pastel voids of the movie’s housing projects in favor of an intense music video chic. In that moment it’s not at all difficult to see why the protagonist Marieme would choose gang life over her only other viable options: vocational school or a life of housekeeping. Besides the “Diamonds” scene & several other moments of otherworldly dance parties, Girlhood also shines in its opening sequence, in which two female football teams clash to the sounds of minimal synth in an oddly beautiful, but violent display that sets the tone for what’s to come. As the football match lets out, the girls roam in a cloud of raucous chatter.
These dreamlike escapes are always fleeting, though. The group gradually splinters & the scene shifts from an unbridled, decidedly feminine joy to a quietly fearful trip through a very literal, very dangerous-feeling male gaze. A lot of what lurks in Girlhood‘s pensive silence is an unspoken oppression & the threat of violence from the few men in Marieme’s life, particularly her older brother. Torn between fending for herself & protecting her younger siblings, Marieme finds herself in the vulnerable position of not qualifying for high school and decides, rather quickly, to trade in her makeshift football gang for a much more purposeful gang of loveable reprobates. It’s through the empowerment of her new crew that she builds the confidence to occupy traditionally male spaces: night time public streets, fistfights, sexual exploration, etc. The meek quiet of that opening football sequence is quickly supplanted by the rush of Marieme getting whatever she wants through brute force & the solidarity of her newfound sisterhood. The problem is that Marieme is too smart to play the girl gang game forever. As much fun as she has with the scene’s selfies & shoplifting, pocket knives & smart phones, she begins to plan for the future, which is about as dangerously unsure & open-ended in the film as it is in real life.
Much of the Girlhood‘s back half deliberately raises more questions than it dares to answer as its protagonist tries to figure out exactly who she is & what she wants. Due to an unfortunate (but perhaps intentional, marketing-wise) similarities in titles, Girlhood has of course suffered a lot of comparisons to Richard Linklater’s technically impressive, but (in this reviewer’s eyes) messy at best in practice Boyhood. Given Boyhood‘s never-ending need to wrap everything up tightly in a neat little package, the two films couldn’t be further apart in their approaches to capturing the essence of youth on film. Girlhood has no interest in telling a complete story, but rather indulges in soaking in the cold, grey pastels of a life drifting through housing projects and the inevitable doom of the pull between personal & familial obligations that poverty & shrinking options for escape can often inflict upon far too many young people. Girlhood’s disinterest in closure is a commendable impulse with thoroughly satisfying results, even if those results don’t include straight answers or an A to B narrative. It’s less of a complete story than it is a solemn mood piece, a melancholy tone poem with occasional dance breaks and much-needed gasps for air.