The opening shot of Celine Sciamma’s Girlhood (French: Bande De Filles) is a football game fraught with tension – the action set to eerie, with claustrophobic synth beats reminiscent of Billy Idol circa “White Wedding”. However, the intensity of the game breaks when the final touchdown is scored and the players remove their helmets to reveal a group of young women smiling, laughing and ecstatic in their camaraderie. Evening has fallen and the girls collect their gear, travelling as a bubbly and effervescent group into the night. We see the girls slowly disband, each one heading home, until only quiet Marieme is left walking alone to her apartment complex.
Girlhood is Marieme’s story, but it is universal in its portrayal of the messy and mistake-filled beauty of a young woman’s first female friendships.
Sciamma both wrote and directed Girlhood. Acknowledgement of Sciamma’s work is crucial, because Girlhood revolutionises the well-worn trope-filled drama of the coming-of-age film. Girlhood does not showcase a young man juggling the trials and tribulations of modern masculinity, instead centreing on a young woman of colour in a Parisian housing project, whose life changes the day she meets three other young women. The girls’ blossoming friendship is vital and precious. Marieme’s home life is dictated by her older brother’s mercurial moods and violent outbursts. Her neighborhood is governed by male gangs and ruled by a patriarchal drug lord. However, while Sciamma shows the toll of this boy’s club on the young women of Marieme’s neighborhood, the film solely remains a testament to the power of platonic love and the commitment the girls have for one another.
After Marieme returns home from the football game, we learn that she is the primary caregiver for her two younger sisters; her mother works nights and her brother isn’t concerned with domestic duties. The next day Marieme heads to school, where she is informed that she won’t be able to attend high school because her grades are too low. Her teacher hands her brochures to vocational programmes, as Marieme sits crushed, stunned. Marieme attempts to reason with her teacher, asking for a chance, for anything, but the teacher remains frustratingly oblivious to the realities of her student’s life.
The viewer feels Marieme’s confusion. What does one do when your entire future is suddenly snatched away? At this moment, Marieme meets her future in Lady, Fily and Adiatou, a quintessential girl gang (long hair, leather jackets, cigarettes and makeup). Lady is the leader of the gang and whisks Marieme off to an impromptu group trip to the mall.
At the mall Marieme is followed by a sales clerk, which prompts Lady, Fily and Adiatou to stand up for Marieme and intimidate the clerk. The three girls slowly accept Marieme and she cements her status as the fourth member of the group. As Marieme continues to hang out with the girls, we begin to see her stylistic transformation from braids and pastel to long hair and leather. Simultaneously, we witness the intricacies of gang life – the intimidation, fighting and weapons necessary to shared survival. However, the moment that cements their relationship takes place in a hotel room, in which the four young women throw themselves a slumber party. All four put on shoplifted dresses, worn solely for each other, and lip sync to Rihanna’s “Diamonds”. The “Diamonds” sequence is joyfully indescribable. The sheer happiness on each girl’s face reflects the sublime beauty of living young and fast with your friends in an ineffable moment that never seems to end.
The girls’ tranquility is soon upended, when Lady loses a fight and is humiliated online and throughout the neighborhood. Lady’s loss spurs Marieme’s desire for retribution and reclamation of control over their lives. Marieme wins her fight and later comes into contact with the more dangerous men of her neighborhood. She grows brave and strong and becomes her own woman, with no patriarchal influence. Marieme grows up unafraid because of the young women who have shaped her life: Lady, Fily and Adiatou.
Words: Annette Lepique
Image: Rita Gomes