Girlhood opens on a group of teenage girls playing football. It looks different than so many male-centric versions of this sort of scene, not just because of the players’ gender or because they’re all French rather than American, but the way the scene, backed by a synth-heavy score, feels celebratory rather than mythic or self-serious. The camaraderie doesn’t last, though, at least not in this form. The camera follows the group walking home at night, getting smaller and smaller as more of them break off from the group, until it’s just Marieme (Karidja Touré), making her way back to the apartment she shares with her mother and siblings.
The mother barely appears in the film; her job as an office cleaner leaves her older children splitting the leftover parental duties, with Marieme’s older brother Djibril (Cyril Mendy) taking on a domineering-father role. Living in the projects and not making grades good enough to move on to a stronger high school program, Marieme faces possible vocational training and, it’s implied, a life a lot like her mother’s. Feeling disconnected from both her school and home life, she finds solace with a group of three tough girls, led by Lady (Assa Sylla). Marieme finds them both intimidating and welcoming, because the girls waver between hardened bullies and affectionate best friends. There’s palpable relief whenever their grim faces dissolve into cackles—or when the girls’ shit-talking envelopes and protects Marieme. When a clothing-store employee starts following her because of her skin color (Marieme and most of the major characters in the film are black), her friends materialize for an angry defense. Their sometimes-bullying tone turns righteous and independent.
Writer-director Céline Sciamma expertly places her characters in that nebulous region between child and adult. Their in-between status crystallizes in a scene where the girls dance to Rihanna’s “Diamonds” in a blue-lit hotel room, feasting on pizza and spiked soda, wearing dresses that appear to have been shoplifted from another store. Sciamma lets the song play out almost in full, the girls gradually joining the party until they’re all in frame, eventually singing along rather than lip-syncing. They’re dressed up like adults for what is, essentially, a big sleepover party.
In her film debut, Touré doesn’t display a great range of expression; she spends a lot of the movie with her eyes downcast and worried, or looking like she just tasted something unpleasant. She shines, though, at projecting that familiar adolescent ambivalence. Her shifting physical appearance, especially in hairstyle, shows her growing and changing even when her performance stays quiet. Sciamma didn’t shoot Touré over a period of 12 years—though this film did emerge around the same time as Richard Linklater’s similarly titled triumph. The comparison may sound superficial, but it’s also instructive; both movies are more concerned with character and situation than plot, addressing those concerns with different methods. Boyhood has the natural endpoint of its lead growing into a young adult, while Girlhood stretches out in front of Marieme, an uncertain path into a haze.
The film doesn’t always visualize its ideas; one key scene has Marieme talking about a moment of happiness from her recent past that might have played better onscreen, rather than in a monologue. In its final 40 minutes or so, Girlhood also loses track of the other three girl-gang members, and in doing so becomes a different, glummer movie, hitting a lot of familiar social-realism beats. There are older characters who pretend to have Marieme’s best interests at heart, but don’t; a vague boyfriend who’s more of a conflict device than a person; and plenty of obvious ways that Marieme’s life could take a turn for the worse. The moments of joy and connection, like a beautiful, seemingly endless pan across a long line of talking and laughing young women, recede and the movie becomes, at times, a bit of a slog. But that’s how it goes sometimes on the long approach to adulthood.