Eternally fixated on the roles, expectations and desires of female characters throughout human history, the films of writer and director Céline Sciamma are urgently pertinent, seeking to question social constructs of womanhood and gender. Such has been explored throughout each and every one of her feature films, from her debut project Water Lilies to her modern masterpiece Portrait of a Lady of Fire to her underappreciated female coming of age story, Girlhood.
With meticulous care and focus for its protagonist, Girlhood is an intimate exploration of the adolescent transition following a young black teenage girl living in a poor Paris suburb. Seeking escape from her oppressive family life and personal development for her quiet persona, Marieme (Karidja Touré) befriends a gang of intimidating girls who prompt her to change her appearance, personality and mannerisms.
Lost in the maze of adolescence, Marieme seeks acceptance from the gang of girls and sacrifices the remnants of her old identity in order to fit in, fearing the isolation that may come if she doesn’t comply. It’s a heartbreaking journey told with sympathy and affection by Céline Sciamma, well reflecting the melancholy adolescent transition where one decides to leave their childhood behind and take on a new identity.
Loud and distressing, Sciamma’s impression of modern teenage life is one fraught with stress and anxiety in which social expectancy bears down on an individual with an oppressive shadow. Despite the young characters of her story being smart, funny and good-looking, Sciamma does well to reflect the lack of opportunities for such black working-class girls whose potential will likely go untapped in a society that disgards their value.
Inspired by the different gangs of girls she saw around Paris, Sciamma highlights the unique bond that is formed between the girls who rely on each other as a second family, supporting each other as they try and navigate girlhood.
Taking months to cast the film where actors were scouted from the Parisian streets, Sciamma revealed to The Guardian that it was important to her to cast a group of young black women. “I didn’t feel I was making the film about black women but with black women – it’s not the same. I’m not saying, ‘I’m going to tell you what it’s like being black in France today’; I just want to give a face to the French youth I’m looking at, the filmmaker revealed.
To evade the stresses of reality, the girls gang together and seek comfort from their shared loyalty, a sentiment that comes to fruition when the group dance to Rihanna’s ‘Diamonds’ in a hotel room. Totally liberated from outsiders, the girls celebrate their own love for each other in wild dance and song, reverting back to their frivolous youth as they flail around the room in unabashed joy, dropping their stoney, tough facade.
Having since gone on to further illustrate her thoughts on the state of modern and historic femininity, Sciamma’s Girlhood represents one of her very finest films, presenting an urgent female coming of age narrative that is too often brushed aside in cinema. Celebratory, melancholy, explosive and tender, Girlhood is a whirlwind of pain and morality, not unlike the struggle of adolescence itself.