Home Video Hovel: Girlhood, by Craig Schroeder
The title of Celine Sciamma’s (Tomboy, Water Lillies) new film Girlhood is likely to evoke facile comparisons to last year’s Boyhood. But Sciamma’s film looks nothing like Richard Linklater’s meandering, poetic twelve-year odyssey through adolescence. Whereas the protagonist of Boyhood has over a decade to transition from child to adult, Girlhood focuses on a single summer, wherein adulthood is not a destination slowly shambling closer, instead, it’s a frightening reality closing in on a young girl much too early.
Marieme (Karidja Touré) has failed out of school. Her older brother is abusive, her father absent, and her mother ineffectual. She is her younger sister’s only support system. On the last day of school, Marieme learns she can’t move on to high school and won’t be allowed to return to the eighth grade (which she has twice repeated). Searching for anything resembling normalcy, Marieme ingrains herself into a tight-knit clique of outgoing, if sometimes misguided, teenage girls, who assign Marieme the nickname Vic (short for Victory). Sciamma’s subtle and vulnerable screenplay is upstaged only by her visual style, turning a sobering coming-of-age tale into an unsettling, dreamy tapestry of what it means to be a child, a girl, and eventually an adult, all in a few short weeks.
If Girlhood is to draw comparisons to any recent film, it is Harmony Korine’s Spring Breakers, 2012’s cotton-candy tinted fever-dream of teenage excess and debauchery. Though the narrative similarities are fairly surface level (each film features four young girls immersing themselves in a dangerous world they are too naive to navigate), both films make outstanding use of musical cues and have visual sensibilities that evoke an energetic reverie masking a deeper sadness. Like Spring Breakers, Girlhood uses both diagetic and non-diagetic pop-music throughout, mixing recognizable pop songs with a vibrant score. In Girlhood’s best scene, Marieme and her friends lip-sync the length of Rihanna’s “Diamonds” in a haze of harsh blue light, interrupting the narrative for a surreal moment of unnerving energy (reminiscent of Alien’s rendition of Britney Spears’ “Everytime” in Spring Breakers). The score, by composer Jean-Baptise de Laubier, features memorable music cues that are sent-up throughout the film, emerging the viewer in an experience that’s beautiful, hazy, dangerous and unsettling.
Though the film is beautiful, the edges in Girlhood remain delightfully un-sanded, willing to examine the unpleasantries in Marieme’s life without ever becoming mawkish. Sciamma’s screenplay is smart enough to never blame or accuse Marieme, even when her actions are less than thought out. For her part, Kardja Touré delivers as strong a performance as the script requires. From weak social pariah to strong-willed protector, from an innocent optimist to a detached cynic, Touré actualizes an archetype and turns in a character whose identity is evolving and morphing from one scene to the next.
The opening scene of Girlhood is as poetic as it is prophetic (if a bit on the nose): a wordless three minute battle of wit and muscle between two all-girl football (futbol americano, that is) teams. The scene’s beauty and grace–the best choreographed and shot football sequences since Friday Night Lights went off the air in 2011–allow it to shine, even as the film’s most heavy-handed metaphor: young women fighting themselves, the elements and the rules to achieve something, anything. By the end of the film, Marieme’s problems–be they racism, classicism, misogyny or sexuality–aren’t going away. If they ever will remains unclear, but Girlhood gives Marieme’s story the weight it deserves.