Tuesday, January 27, 2015

GIRLHOOD: Céline Sciamma's splendid look at a French girl at an important crossroad in her life

By this time we expect very good things from French filmmaker Céline Sciamma: the good Water Lilies, the better Tomboy, and now her best, GIRLHOOD (Bande de filles). This latest tale -- of a high-school beauty named Marieme (who will soon enough be going by the alias of Vic, for victory) and her family and friends -- is filled with life, surprise and the kind of on-screen reality that is difficult to fake. This comes, I think, from a genuine and deep understanding of its protagonists. From first frame to last, the movie barrels ahead and takes you with it.

Ms Sciamma, shown at right, is simply terrific at capturing the moment without making it seem overly fraught. Time and again her usual cinematographer, Crystel Fournier, catches those on-the-fly happenings that count for something at the time and in retrospect keep us thoughtfully musing, while her editor Julien Lacheray pieces it all together for maximum effect and enjoyment. It is as writer and director, however, that the filmmaker really shines. Her conception-- noticeably lacking in either sentimentality or gloss -- is nothing less that bringing to us the life of her heroine in such real and complete form -- good, bad and most often in between -- that we can only follow along and finally marvel at how complete the movie seems, even as it leaves us and Marieme up in the air -- but aware!

The filmmaker has found one of the most beautiful, alive and glowing young performers I have seen in a long while to play her lead. Karidja Touré (above and below) is a real "find," someone whom we will surely see again and again -- unless this young woman opts for some other career and life. Ms Touré, working from Sciamma's script, is able to let us enter her character so fully that we understand her thought processes, her needs and desires, her joys and disappointments.

The film opens with a football game, the likes of which you have probably never witnessed, and then moves to a family scene that ends with a nasty thwack! When, soon enough, our heroine learns that she cannot progress to the kind of schooling she wants, a "girl group" beckons, and almost on a dare, she joins it. These girls are sassy and then some, and Marieme must prove her bona fides to fit in.

Yet as we more fully understand these other girls, they too become rounded characters so that, though Marieme is always front and center, we know and care for all of them. The men and boys we meet are something else. Sciamma's interest lies more with the females, but she gives the males, at least partially, their due. Marieme's brother is a bully, but he is the man of the family and expects obeisance from his crew. Her boyfriend is kinder, gentler, though he, too, must somehow fit into the macho mold. The film's interesting sex scene objectifies the male for a change; later we see a little lesbianism sprouting from good, French immigrant soil.

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of the film is how Marieme herself learns the value of the use of force and what it can achieve within the society she must inhabit. But Sciamma also shows us the girl's need to both conquer and protect. And when, at last, she is faced with some important and meaningful choices, we can understand how she so easily feels that those choices are too limited. They may not be, after all, and to the film's great credit, Marieme and we begin finally to understand this.

As often as I poo-poo the idea of making yet another movie sequel, this film and its wonderful lead character almost demand one. I'd line up to see it, and I'll bet, after watching Girlhood, you would, too.

The movie -- from Strand Releasing, in French with English subtitles, and running 112 minutes, opens this Friday, January 30, in New York City at the Elinor Bunin Munroe Film Center. In the Los Angeles area, look for it at Laemmle's Playhouse 7 in Pasadena on February 6, and then elsewhere across the country in the weeks to come.

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