Girlhood, which has just finally opened in the UK, grabs you from the get-go. Over a fizzing electro-pop soundtrack, two teams of black girls clash in slow motion on an American football pitch. Their striped cheeks and outsized body armour set the tone for a film about urban warriors, but when the match ends and the helmets come off, it’s all broad grins and high fives. So this is a movie about the bonds between women, too. The girls walk home gossiping through the concrete night, splitting off one by one from the pack until we are left with just one: 16-year-old Marieme, who henceforth will appear in every scene.
It’s testament to Céline Sciamma’s skill as writer/director that she introduces the movie’s themes so effectively without words. And though the dialogue throughout feels real and street-fresh, heavily influenced and improvised by the astonishingly talented first-time actors who play the girls, it is the wordless scenes that linger long after the film has ended.
Oppressed at home by a violent older brother, denied access to high school by poor grades, Marieme falls in with a devil-may-care gang of three girls. It is while washing up that Marieme decides on her new life: she stops cleaning the sharp kitchen knife, folds it, and puts it in her pocket. Her hands clutch the edge of the sink. The camera moves behind her, and pulls back until she is small within the illuminated space of the sink. Then her shoulders straighten, and she lifts her head.
The pivotal scene that seals the girls’ bond is also wordless. They rent a hotel room with some ill-gotten gains. They knock back rum and coke, smoke a joint, and put on glamorous dresses with the anti-theft tags still attached. It’s as though they are getting dolled up to go out clubbing, but they are not dressing to attract men; they are dressing for themselves, testing out their power as women. The gang’s charismatic leader, Lady, begins to dance to Rihanna’s Shine Bright Like A Diamond, lip-synching perfectly. Marieme looks on for a few seconds, then joins in – setting a new style of dancing which foreshadows the way, later, she will take over as leader. It’s a beautiful, tender, exhilarating scene, which Sciamma rightly allows to play out for the whole length of the song.
You can even chart the girls’ emotional journey through their hair. When Marieme decides to join the gang, she unpicks her cornrows and lets her hair flow free, like theirs. When Lady is humiliated in a crucial fight with a rival, her hair is cut, Samson-like. When Marieme’s life choices narrow and she sinks further into the underworld, joining a hardened adult criminal gang, she adopts a short white wig.
Sciamma says she started with characters, and the plot grew from them. She herself came from the disadvantaged banlieues outside Paris, and was inspired by observing groups of black teenagers on the streets. “When you meet these girls,” she told Cineuropa recently, “they have such energy, such intelligence, such humour, such charisma, even though they don’t get to dream a lot and their country does not give them a vision of what they could become or do.”
Girlhood is Sciamma’s third coming-of-age movie, after Water Lilies (2007) and Tomboy (2011). Though a more direct translation of its French title, Bande de Filles, would be “Gang of Girls”, “Girlhood” evokes Kidulthood and Adulthood, the seminal British films about young black urban experience. But whereas Noel Clarke’s films were raw, hit-and-miss affairs, Girlhood is more than just a political statement about straitened opportunities or a moving female-centric relationship drama. Ravishingly shot in Cinemascope, it is pure cinematic art.
This review was first written for the Guardian website during the 2014 BFI London Film Festival.