This year’s Cannes jury whiffed badly with their awards, ignoring great work (Toni Erdmann, Paterson, Sonia Braga’s towering performance in Aquarius) in favor of significantly lesser efforts. Thankfully, a separate jury was assigned to award the Caméra D’Or (for best debut feature, across all of the festival’s many sections), and it got that one right. This year’s winner, Divines, written and directed by French-Moroccan filmmaker Houda Benyamina, rivals Girlhood as a portrait of combustible banlieue femininity, emanating raw energy and scrappy good humor even as it builds to an unexpectedly tragic and horrifying finale. The film also showcases a potentially star-making performance by Oulaya Amamra, who happens to be the director’s younger sister. Chosen despite a cattle call in which Benyamina looked at over 3,000 other young women, Amamra is so arrestingly alive onscreen that thoughts of nepotism seem ludicrous.
The first time we see her character, Dounia, alongside best friend Maimouna (Déborah Lukumuena), both are dressed in burqas. As it turns out, they wear that attire strictly to facilitate shoplifting sprees, and are generally prone to wander across the thin line separating juvenile delinquency from serious trouble. Bored with school and teachers’ stifling efforts to groom her for bourgeois success, Dounia pesters a local drug dealer, Rebecca (Jisca Kalvanda, intimidating), for an entry-level job as a corner soldier, with the enormous Maimouna drafted as muscle. As it turns out, Dounia’s charisma is as apparent to everyone in the movie as it is to us, and she winds up being tasked to seduce and rob a lecherous impresario, which requires her to glam up and explore a side of her burgeoning womanhood that she’s mostly ignored. Though, just to muddy the waters, this big score takes place on the same night that she’s agreed to attend the performance of a dancer (Kevin Mishel) with whom she’s been warily flirting.
One key sequence in Divines is set to Azealia Banks’ casually vulgar, rhythmically assaultive “212,” and the movie boasts a similar no-fucks-given sensibility. For a long time, it seems entirely anecdotal, content to watch Dounia and Maimouna indulge their fantasies of livin’ large; one memorable sequence sees them imagine taking a joyride in a newly purchased Ferrari, and Benyamina, having framed them in medium close-up, somehow proceeds to send them careening around as if they were actually sitting in the car. (It’s like Spike Lee’s famous PeopleMover shot, but way more elaborate.) The sheer vitality of the filmmaking and the performances is infectious, which makes the dark turn that Divines ultimately takes even more of a gut punch. That things would go wrong was a given, but Benyamina devises a reckoning so unexpected, and so ludicrously nightmarish, that it threatens to overwhelm everything that preceded it. That sort of tonal shift requires a very steady hand, which usually only comes with experience—and, again, this is Benyamina’s first feature. As debuts go, however, it’s a stunner, and proof that festival juries do occasionally recognize talent when they see it.