French director Celine Sciamma says she was unaware of Richard Linklater's landmark film Boyhood when she decided to change the name of her film Bande de Filles (which translates as "Gang of Girls") to Girlhood for U.S. distribution. Whatever the origins of the name, Sciamma's film has little in common with Linklater's.
While Boyhood effectively celebrates the ordinary by showing how all lives are remarkable when viewed from the right perspective, Girlhood confronts a specific and little-seen world. One of a few European films to feature a cast entirely of African descent, Girlhood tells a story of four embattled teenage girls from the Parisian banlieues, a term that refers to both France's low-income housing projects and to the suburban communities outside major cities where many of the housing projects are located. (In 2005, rioting was centered in the banlieues of Paris and other French cities.) But Girlhood strays far from the pure social realism suggested by its setting.
The story focuses on Marieme (Karidja Toure), a soft-spoken 16-year-old with an abusive older brother and two younger sisters she must care for thanks to almost completely absent parents. After she's sent away from school for poor grades, she falls in with a band of three tough and streetwise girls, changes her name to Vic (short for Victory) and begins a tentative journey of self-discovery.
In the male-dominated world of the banlieues, the girls' growing solidarity becomes a lifeline for Vic and her friends — a means of survival and a source of purpose and meaning. Instead of painting a broad portrait of crime and despair with a sharp sociopolitical message, Girlhood celebrates the girls' personal strength, attitudes and exuberance — the only tools they possess to ward off an otherwise bleak future.
Sciamma has weathered sharp criticism because she's a white and relatively privileged filmmaker trying to tell a story about disadvantaged teenagers of African descent. But Girlhood transcends issues of race with keen observations of teenage life in today's world, rendering the film intimate and universal. The film's central scene is a private one in which the four girls joyously lip-synch and dance to a full airing of Rihanna's mega-hit song "Diamonds." (Rihanna reportedly allowed inclusion of the song only after seeing the film's purposeful use of it.) The scene speaks volumes about how the girls relate to each other and to the world around them.
Once the story moves beyond its gang of girls, the film becomes far more conventional and loses steam. Even at its low point, Girlhood maintains a certain freshness, a sense that we are experiencing an entire range of characters free from movie stereotypes and seldom depicted on screen. Sciamma reportedly had to take to the streets to find her remarkable cast, if only because French talent agencies mostly don't bother with actresses of color. But it's hard to imagine anyone having trouble relating to Sciamma's girls. Maybe the film's not so different from Boyhood after all.