In the first act of Céline Sciamma’s Girlhood, the protagonist Marieme sinks down in front of the sofa in her family’s cramped apartment. As she does, her older brother wraps his arm around her throat – not tightly enough to hurt, but enough to promise pain. Although thousands of films are released each year with visceral violence and blood-stained floors, the hint of pressure is more suffocating than any of them.
But Girlhood isn’t just a story about that pressure; it’s a story about escape from it.
Rather than simplify her life to suffering, Sciamma shows Marieme’s world through a patient lens, considering both the barriers around her, and happiness she finds in the gaps. With this contrast, the moments when she is truly happy, and free from suffocation, are like suddenly coming up to air after minutes underwater – not simply heart-warming but a breath of life.
It is the expression of this overwhelming freedom which sets Girlhood apart in its genre. In one key scene, Marieme and her friends dance carelessly in stolen dresses to Diamonds by Rihanna, in a hotel room they’ve booked for the night. It perfectly captures the fleeting ecstasy friendship can bring – of feeling overwhelmingly complete and at one with the people around you. The performance of the young, untrained actors elevates this freedom into genuine authenticity as their comfort amongst each other is palpable, even without words.
When the song is over, the four girls must squeeze back into their normal lives. The film plays out as a series of transformations, as Marieme tries to twist out of the way of the restrictions placed upon her to rediscover that momentary happiness. She slips in and out of identities, trying them out for size, testing the impact on those around her. At times, she makes ill-advised decisions and commits morally ambiguous acts,. Bbut even when we don’t agree, it’s easy to understand why. We have tasted that freedom and know what it’s worth.
Girlhood combines the unique culture of the French projects with the universal questions of freedom and identity – not only showing the audience a world they may not be familiar with, but forcing them head-first into it.