Under the clear night sky two all-female football teams square off surround only by the glow of stadiums lights. The players compete with the same grit and intensity as their male counterparts despite not having a single fan to cheer them on. It is an inspired choice by Céline Sciamma to use football, a sport typically dominated by men, as a metaphor for the confines in which her characters exist. The women in Sciamma’s Girlhood are constantly trying to establish their own identity in an environment where males seemingly run the show.
The guide through this world of housing projects and gang fights is Marieme (Karidja Touré), a mild-mannered sixteen-year-old whose family situation is less than stellar. Her mother works long hours as a custodian, leaving Marieme and her younger sisters stuck at home with their abusive and domineering older brother. With her school prospects diminishing, her only outlet comes in the form of a new friendship she strikes up with three free-spirited girls (Assa Sylla, Mariétou Touré, Lindsay Karamoh). Adopting a new style, and finally filled with a sense of belonging, Marieme embraces the gang lifestyle that the girls flaunt hoping that it will provide the freedom she desperately craves.
One of the strengths of Girlhood is that it is acutely aware of its surroundings at all times. Unlike the Oscar nominated Boyhood, whose title alone will draw unnecessary comparisons, the awkwardness and hardships found in Sciamma’s film does not evoke fond memories for most part. It is a bleak landscape where the innocence of youth is only found in brief moments devoid of the male gaze. The jubilant celebrations, such as the raucous chatter after the football game, dissipates the moment they encounter their male peers. A tough bravado is swiftly assumed as being deemed weak by the boys is more demeaning than the catcalls they occasionally hurl.
This is why the latter half of the film, likely the make or break section for audiences, is so captivating. In her most desperate time, Marieme opts to flee one bad situation for another that is only slightly better. In her new surroundings she does everything to cast aside her femininity, preferring a more macho persona. However, as Sciamma skillfully points out on several occasions, Marieme cannot escape the disadvantages that her gender faces in that environment. She will always be seen as a girl, as the other.
Despite the bleakness of the narrative, Céline Sciamma’s film is a surprisingly lively affair. Flaunting her creative prowess, she peppers Girlhood with an abundance of wonderful stylistic moments, such as the sensational bit of female bonding via the girls lip-syncing Rihanna’s hit Diamonds, that truly pop off the screen. Whether she is bringing a glossy sheen to the football sequence, playing with the lighting during Marieme’s first kiss, or following a wig wearing Marieme as she struts up the stairs to an upscale party, Sciamma offers so many visual treats that she nearly overshadows the content by giving the film a slightly magical feel.
Thankfully, Karidja Touré’s sensational performance quickly reminds the audience that this is no fairy tale. There are no guaranteed happy endings within the harsh realities of the world Marieme and her friends live in. The audience can only hope that she finds the strength to make it through. Capturing the gender and societal politics impacting modern day youths with unflinching honesty, Girlhood is a mesmerizing film that truly shines bright.
Girlhood begins its exclusive run at the TIFF Bell Lightbox tomorrow.