I’m “biast” (con): nothing
(what is this about? see my critic’s minifesto)
You want to know what it feels like to be a teenaged girl? The opening sequence of Girlhood nails it in a way I promise you have never seen before on film. A group of rowdy, rambunctious girls is walking home from their sporting match — American football, of all things, with all its rough and tumble — chatting and laughing among themselves. Until they come upon a gang of teenaged boys just hanging out… and then they shut up in an instant as they scurry past. The boys don’t do or say anything to them; they don’t have to. The mere presence of boys and their unspoken judgment is enough to force the girls to shrink down into meek, demure shadows of their true selves.
I gasped out loud at this. This is one of the most unexpectedly shocking moments on film this year (though in a cinematic environment that strove to understand girls and women and offered our intimate perspectives on the world with the same intensity as it does for boys and men, this wouldn’t be shocking at all). It’s one of the best shorthand illustrations I’ve seen of how our culture crushes the life out of girls.
Now, writer-and-director Céline Sciamma’s Girlhood is ostensibly about a poor black teen girl in the housing projects on the outskirts of Paris, and its French title, Bande de filles, translates more as Girl Gang than anything else. But anyone who is or ever was a girl will see herself at least partly in 15-ish Marieme (Karidja Touré). She is struggling to figure out how to claim her sexuality and what that even means when boys — such as her violent older brother — think they can make such decisions for her. She has been told that “you have to do what you want,” but what she really wants is the education denied her through no fault of her own (it’s hard to study when you’re responsible for taking care of your little sisters because your single mother is off working to buy food for you all). She is trying to soldier on even as her spirit is getting squashed and her hopes are getting smashed. It’s not an accident that she falls in with a girl gang led by Lady (Assa Sylla): it’s Marieme’s considered decision, one that gives her a sense of direction and inclusion that she doesn’t get elsewhere (she’s tried!). And it’s one in which she might be able to put to use her intelligence and natural leadership skills that are flailing around looking for a purpose now that so many other paths have been closed off to her.
I don’t want to diminish the fact that this is a story about a poor black girl, but Girlhood really feels very universal… or perhaps that’s just a function of the lack of honest stories about teen girls at all. Certainly, there very few as nuanced and as unvarnished as this extraordinary portrait, with its rare depth and compassion for people too often ignored on film. (Touré and Sylla and the rest of the cast are nonactors drawn from the Parisian projects, and they bring searingly authentic power to their performances.) In many ways, Marieme couldn’t be any less like me, and yet I feel like she is a soulmate to all women.
Incredibly, there is another film opening in the U.K. today about which much of the same could be said. The brilliant and necessary Honeytrap was loosely inspired by a real-life London crime in which a teenaged girl lured a boy who liked her to his death at the hands of a gang of male teens. (Not a spoiler: the murder is depicted in the opening scene, and then the rest of the film is a flashback leading up to it.) Like Girlhood, it is, on its surface, about a poor black girl, one trapped in cycles of poverty, abuse, neglect, and poor education, but writer-director Rebecca Johnson (making her feature debut) makes her tragic story all about realities of the lives of all teen girls that movies rarely touch on, and never with such vicious clarity.
Fifteen-year-old Layla (Jessica Sula) has just arrived from Trinidad in Brixton, a poor area of South London, and she is not prepared for the vipers’ pit she is about to be thrown into at her new school (which features metal detectors at the entrances; I thought that was only an American thing). She is young for her age — she packed dolls for her move — but she figures out how to grow up fast, buffeted by the horrible peer pressure from the cool girls and the expectations of boys. (The film does a great job of depicting how girls get sexualized without actually becoming exploitive itself, via the subplot about local rapper Troy [Lucien Laviscount] and the music video Layla ends up appearing in.) Layla’s ache to be accepted is heartrending, her unfulfilled need for love or even just fleeting affection what drives her, ultimately, to do the terrible thing she does. Her mother (Naomi Ryan: Guardians of the Galaxy) is distant when she isn’t disdainful of her daughter, you see, and Troy is someone who actually wants her, even if only to use, abuse, and possess…
Being a teenaged girl is awful enough in the best circumstances — when your mother doesn’t hate you; when you have real friends — but Layla’s life: ugh. Honeytrap is a difficult, upsetting film, quite harrowing in its unflinching look at the everyday horrors of ordinary lives. But I love it for that, too.
both films first viewed during the 58th BFI London Film Festival