When we speak in platitudes about the hardships and the bullying faced by tween-aged kids in school, we might speak about encouraging self-confidence or goal achievement. But, in Maïmouna Doucouré’s sharply observed Cuties, about an eleven-year-old girl steering full bore into a new version of herself—a version apart from the idea of womanhood offered by her family—we are reminded that kids’ goals are often not in their own best interest. The bullies are mean but the bullied would give anything to become them, the most potent example of power and outward confidence they have to look up to. Still, Cuties reminds us, this misguided ambition is difficult—and potentially damaging—to try and discourage.
It’s Amy’s (Fathia Youssouf Abdillahi) first day at her new Parisian elementary school when she encounters the Mignonnes, or Cuties, a quartet of outgoing popular girls who have started their own dance troupe with the aim of taking on an older, Instagram-famous team of dancers. The Cuties’ brand of budding femininity is instantly more appealing to Amy than the life planned for her by her Senegalese family and community where “learning to be a woman” involves preparing the meal for her father’s upcoming wedding to his second wife (polygamy, not divorce), the news of which has made Amy feel even more disconnected from her home life.
Cuties‘ most outrageous but most indispensable element is the highly sexualized behavior of its core cast of children. At first, all the pouts and gyrations and bare midriffs seem like pure comedy. But, even though it continues to be funny, the humor gains a darker edge as we come to understand how this particular brand of precociousness represents a dual-edged freedom. The girls’ move toward more assured self-expression is a positive but one worries about the healthiness of understanding sexiness before understanding sex.
Doucouré is as ambivalent about her character’s maturation as she is about their friendship. When Amy and head Mignonne Angelica (Medina El Aidi) lounge in bed, talking about their families, their bond is so tight that they’re even twirling their hair together. Female friendships of any age tend to be stronger and more intimate than those of boys and men but, at an age when insecurity is at its max, the slightest betrayal or rough patch can tear these girls apart devastatingly.
In its nonjudgmental empathy and its comedy of discomfort, Cuties is a tad reminiscent of Bo Burnham’s Eighth Grade, though with an even younger lead. But Doucouré distinguishes her film with touches of magical realism–a dress that seems to change and swell in anticipation of Amy’s puberty; possibly sentient confetti; an airborne game of jump rope–that make Cuties thrillingly unique.