Cuties (2020), Director: Maïmouna Doucouré
There is a wonderful moment early on in Netflix's recently released film, Cuties
), written and directed by first-time filmmaker Maïmouna Doucouré. The camera focuses on the startled look on the face of a teacher in a school playground, then turns 90 degrees to show what she is looking at: a large group of kids standing stock still, forming a complicated pattern of limbs and poses, as if captured in a picture book.
The four girls responsible for choreographing the show refuse to move when the teacher shepherds the other students back into school, and they yell 'Freedom!' when their teacher finally drags them into the building. It is a startling and very funny image, foretelling the mischievousness of the film and introducing its eponymous players to us and to new girl Amy, who witnesses the pageant and wants to join in the fun.
The synopsis accompanying Netflix's release of the film describes Cuties
as being about an 11-year-old Senegalese Muslim girl Amy (short for Aminata) who is torn between the traditional values of her background and a group of rebellious young girls. But its promotional material shows Amy and her gang backlit in skin-tight outfits and provocative poses, which led to calls for the film's cancellation by people who had not seen it and so don't know that Amy's first flesh-revealing tube top is an ingeniously repurposed t-shirt belonging to her kid brother.
The original French poster for the film showed gleeful kids romping and giggling down la rue after a shopping spree. As a result of Netflix's mis-step, a change.org petition is doing the rounds aiming to force the company to remove Cuties
from distribution. It reads: 'This movie is disgusting because it sexualises an ELEVEN year old for the viewing pleasure of pedophiles (sic) and also negatively influences our children!… There is no excuse, this is dangerous content!'
In fact, Doucouré's debut film is a delicately drawn, and sometimes very funny, coming of age story of a girl caught between cultures and age. Eleven-year-old Amy (Fathia Youssouf Abdillahi) has just moved with her harassed Senegalese mother Mariam (Maïmouna Gueye) and two younger brothers into a multiethnic housing scheme on the outskirts of Paris.
Although her family is devoutly Muslim, Amy is more interested in her neighbour Angelica (Medina El Aidi), who is the same age and dances to upbeat music while ironing her long hair in the communal laundry room. Amy tries to copy this practice on her own curly hair, with predictable results. Amy's home life is sensitively portrayed, including the pressure on her to look after her brothers and keep the house in order. It is hardly surprising that she feels rebellious and is drawn to the exuberance and apparent freedom of Angelica and her cheeky four-girl troupe.
The Cuties are practising a dance routine for a dance competition. Amy wants to join in. Initially rejected by the gang, she gradually gains acceptance through her friendship with Angelica and because she has a smartphone (stolen from her cousin). She uses the phone to film the Cuties' dance routines, but it quickly becomes a way into the dangerous world of social media. She is soon posing for selfies, putting them online and basking in the 'likes' she receives. She choreographs the gang's dance routines, encouraging them to twerk and pout for the camera, imitating music videos she views on the phone and rehearsing the moves in the bathroom.
There are echoes of films like Céline Sciamma's Girlhood
(2014) but Cuties
is unique in drawing a direct line between the sexualised content available online and its mimicry by very young girls. This certainly makes for uncomfortable and challenging viewing. But the film makes its point successfully, and in ways that are in no way gratuitous: these girls do not know they are playing with fire. The film itself preempts the language of debate. For example, when a security guard tries to eject the girls from a hall they yell 'Stop groping me, you child molester!'
Amy's new friends are as naïve as the children they really are, and are in fact pretty ignorant about sex. In the film's funniest and most hysterical scene, one of the girls mistakes a condom for a balloon, which she blows up. The girls panic, thinking she may die and proceed to wash her mouth out with soap and water.
Watching stripper videos and poaching them for the Cuties' appearance in the competition finale, Amy sets up a performance of such awkward sexuality that people attending the show flinch from it in disgust. And when the supposedly raunchy dance routine eventually arrives onscreen – the one used in Netflix's publicity material – it can only be read as clumsy mimicry within the context of a film that is so gorgeously crafted and judiciously framed.
In Doucouré's film-world, a Parisien sky sparkles with glitter and rainbow-coloured hair extensions thrown giddily in the air by the girls after a shopping spree; and a prism of emerald light pierces the screen when Amy and her little brother gaze through a beaded necklace found at a women's prayer meeting, the same meeting at which a female preacher intones: 'evil dwells in the bodies of uncovered women'. And for every dance scene of girls gyrating and twerking, biting their nails in a suggestive way, there are other uncomplicated moments of childhood play, like Amy and Angelica talking and giggling, their mouths full of jelly babies.
The film is best in its thoughtful moments of observations of family and community life. In one poignant scene, Amy hides under a bed and weeps silently for her mother who is sitting on the bed, literally beating herself up in anguish because her husband has taken a second wife and is bringing her home to live with the family. Pressured by community elder 'Aunty' (veteran Senegalese actor, Mbissine Therese Diop) to obey her husband and put on a brave face, Mariam experiences her marital demotion as her own failure. This event, occurring about halfway through, accounts for the film's opening scene, in which Amy's mother forbids her from entering a room in the new apartment, now revealed as the bedroom set aside for the new bride. Mariam's desolation, at odds with Muslim teaching, is painful for Amy to witness.
There is real pathos in the way Mariam's sadness plays in counterpoint to Amy's increasing rebelliousness and emancipation. There are some intriguing surreal moments, too, especially one involving a traditional Senegalese dress that Amy is expected to wear at the forthcoming wedding. It takes on a life of its own, at one point running with blood, at another filling out with air, prefiguring Amy's first period and budding breasts.
Yann Maritaud's unfussy but artful cinematography is rich with jewel tones of emerald, turquoise, blue and yellow. His camera follows Amy through city streets and sometimes into more dreamlike territory, accompanied in one sequence by the ethereal voice of a counter-tenor, which is deeply affecting. A rich soundtrack encompasses jaunty dance tracks and Senegalese song, the former fading to the latter at one key moment in the film.
moves at a quick pace, with the two sides of Amy's life seamlessly drawn together by editors Stephane Mazalaigue and Mathilde Van de Moortel. Newcomer Fathia Youssouf Abdillahi's central performance anchors the whole film. She is equally convincing as a prancing lip-glossed poseuse and as a lonely child, enraged by her absent father and subject to confusing pressures and emotions as she tries to find her place in the world. Her smile can light up the screen, and at the director's most impressionistic, she can even levitate.
I look forward to Doucouré's next film. Those put off by the pre-publicity and/or Twitter outrage that ensued – as I was initially – should
, indeed, be outraged. They should be outraged that a French-Senegalese black woman director, drawing on her own experience as an immigrant to portray and actively critique the hyper-sexualisation of pre-adolescent girls, has received death threats. But above all, they should be sure to see the film and judge for themselves.