Céline Sciamma’s Girlhood is the coming-of-age tale of Marieme, a young resident of Paris’s forsaken banlieues who struggles to adjust to the environment’s tough conditions. As Marieme, played by first-time actress Karidja Touré, becomes overwhelmed by life in the suburbs, she catches the eyes of her school’s girl gang—which changes her life forever.
During this time last year, I was living in Paris, teaching English at a high school in the suburb of Noisy-le-Grand (about 30 minutes east of Paris by train). It’s hard to believe such a drab ring of neighborhoods cradles one of the most beautiful cities in the world. The buildings and apartment complexes look the same (but not in that Haussmannian way of Paris), there’s generally one or two one-stop-shop supermarkets or strip centers, and a plethora of rustic playgrounds that give off eerie feelings of being misplaced simply because there’s never anyone on them. But the girls of these neighborhoods—and this film—remind me so much of my students. Sciamma’s casting couldn’t be more spot-on.
Karidja’s transformation from Marieme to “Vic” (as in “Victory,” the name the girls gifted her halfway through the film) paints a realistic picture of the teenage experience. After noticing her crush’s friendship with the girl gang, Vic asks if she can tag along on a trip to Paris against her mother’s will. Not long after, we see her with the same hair, outfits, and attitude as her new comrades: Stealing classmates’ lunch money, threatening her peers into giving her exactly what she wanted. But after a premeditated schoolyard fight between the gang’s leader Lady (Assa Sylla) and an enemy from an opposing gang, the onlookers’ videos they’d taped went viral, and Lady’s parents shaved her head—a symbolic attempt to return their daughter to her birth name, Sophie. The morale between the girls shifts as they finally enter high school, and the film’s climax is a positive one. Their ideas of fun mature as well, as the girls partake in trips to their local mini-golf and host dance-offs in the middle of La Défense. But, as French cinema would have it, the film nosedives into yet another rut of shortcomings and Vic makes her final move to Paris to become a drug dealer. The film’s ending, however, will leave you in tears of merriment, because it’s Vic’s final life decision that makes her the most resilient of them all.
So run, don’t walk, to the theater and treat yourself to an important story of female empowerment, courage, and of course—victory. You will remember those four girls, just as I remember those from my own life, long after the movie’s end.