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Review: Girlhood Reveals the Hard Knock Life of a French Teen

Karidja Touré in Girlhood

Karidja Touré in "Girlhood"

Karidja Touré in Girlhood

Karidja Touré in “Girlhood”

Girlhood chronicles an ambitious teenager’s search for independence and identity in a Paris exurb, where her closest friends both sustain and confound her push to transcend French society’s limits on financially struggling women of color.

Originally titled Bande de filles, the movie guides viewers into a hidden world of sexual tension and gang rivalry among marginalized women in central France. It paints an engaging, sympathetic portrait of Marieme, a 16-year-old protagonist driven by loyalty to her kin as much as a deep-felt resentment toward her disadvantages as working-class black woman.

Marieme’s future plans hit a wall at the movie’s start, when her flagging grades place a college-track lycée out of reach and a counselor ignores her pleas to repeat past studies. The unseen official’s cold questioning, incidentally, never touches on the latchkey home where Marieme juggles her school work with the needs of two younger sisters and the temper of a physically abusive older brother. Their mother, preoccupied with supporting the family through a dead-end janitorial job, displays equal indifference toward Marieme’s academic fortunes.

Interactions between the leading women carry an occasional whiff of unrealized romantic possibility, but in Marieme’s case, social strictures hem in any exploration of her sexual identity. After she briefly takes the lead in pursuing a male love interest, her brother swiftly comes down on her for acting like a “whore.”

The untraveled roads in Marieme’s love life, in fact, do more than anything shown on screen to communicate the unique barriers she faces as a woman. She gradually catches onto her community’s unspoken gender limits and shortens her hair to be taken seriously by a male gang that employs her. That action prompts accusations from her female friends that she is trying to play “one of the guys,” but also to an intimate partner dance with one of those friends. The film’s conclusion leaves Mariene uncertain about her future, but uncompromising in her quest for personal autonomy; she has found herself capable of theft and violence, but not of betraying herself or the women closest to her.

Girlhood began making the rounds at international film festivals in January, and its North American DVD release is scheduled for May 19.