“Girlhood” has its Madison premiere on Thursday at 9:45 p.m. at the Union South Marquee Theatre, 1308 W. Dayton St., with an encore showing Friday at 9 p.m. Not rated, 1:41, three and a half stars out of four. FREE!
Celine Sciamma’s third feature film (after “Tomboy” and “Water Lilies” is called “Band de Filles” in its original title, translated into “Girlhood” for its U.S. release. It’s doubtful that it’s just a coincidence that the new title happens to suggest a mirror to Richard Linklater’s “Boyhood.”
And a mirror it certainly is — as much as the stories of Linklater’s Mason and Sciamma’s Marieme (Karidja Toure) reflect each other’s experiences, they are also very much opposites. He’s a white teenage boy in Texas, for whom life is a matter of deciding which open door to walk through. She’s a black teenage girl living in an apartment with her family, marginalized and fighting to wrest control of her life from those around her. He takes a part-time job for college money, she takes a job cleaning hotels to survive and provide for her family.
Between school, that night job at the hotel with her mother and taking care of her siblings, all under the watchful eye of a protective but menacing older brother, there’s little room in Marieme’s life for Marieme. Her life is plotted out for her — endless hard work and responsibility, and her worth in society is measured by her virginity, the easier for her older brother to marry off when the time comes.
But in Toure’s marvelously controlled performance, Marieme quietly yearns for me, to get the chance to be a teenage girl. She gets that chance when she falls in with three rebellious girls at school, the sort of girls who fight and yell and talk loud on the Metro. It’s a dangerous but attractive existence for Marieme, who slowly gets pulled into their orbit, literally letting her hair down as she buys pretty clothes and styles herself under her new friends’ tutelage.
These new friends may be a bad influence on Marieme, but Sciamma’s understated screenplay suggests they may be a necessary influence; she needs to step sideways, away from the role that her family and society have assigned her, before she can step forward. If this new life is a hazardous one (Marieme gets into a vicious fight with another girl), it’s also an exhilarating one. Sciamma shoots “Girlhood” is a lustrous 2.35:1 widescreen format, like a big-budget movie. Because Marieme is finally the star of her life, and the camera celebrates this, such as a sequence where Marieme and her friends lip-sync to Rihanna’s “Diamonds” in a hotel room, all shot like a music video in royal blues.
But an encounter with a former member of the gang, now a single mother, shows how fleeting those moments of teenage joy can be. When Marieme’s brother discovers she’s lost her virginity, he becomes enraged, and banishes her to another neighborhood. In the film’s darker final act, Marieme is separated from her friends and has fallen into the drug trade. She’s learned the tough survival lessons her friends taught her, and needs them now, because she is utterly on her own now. That hotel room seems so far away.
Toure beautifully shows the transformations that Marieme goes through over the course of the film — it’s hard to believe the woman we see at the end of the film is also the girl we met at the start. And Sciamma leaves her in the midst of yet another transformation, possibly one involving gender and sexuality, although “Girlhood” is elusive on this point. The important thing, ultimately, is that whatever new life Marieme is choosing for herself, she is finally the one choosing it.