With Bande de Filles (French translation of Girlhood), director Celine Sciamma proves that exploring female adolescent hardship is her sweet spot. Despite the ease she has shown in piercing the young female psyche, with her earlier films Water Lillies and Tomboy, she does not rest on any laurels. With Bande de Filles, Sciamma goes beyond the white middle-class to craft a film about black girls and the way society pushes them to the margins. This is a tricky endeavor, in which many have failed, but Sciamma refrains from moralizing about her subjects, and instead creates a realistic picture of their lives.
The film opens with a game of American football with female players—our first indication that this film will defy stereotype. One of the players is Marieme, the protagonist, compellingly portrayed by newcomer Karidja Touré. Marieme lives in a Parisian banlieue, a suburb. Unlike the quintessential American suburb, with its abundant lawns and children on tricycles, many banlieues are areas of financial and social conflict. Marieme lives alone with her mother, who is often away at her job as a maid. Her older brother, Djibril, abuses her and her younger sister. The timing of his abuse carries a biting message about the way men treat young femininity. Every time Marieme lets on that she is maturing into a woman, either through sex with her boyfriend, Ismaël, or her changing appearance, Djibril strikes her. The only time he shows Marieme kindness is after she wins a fight with another girl and cuts off her bra in triumph—when she effectively mocks the femininity of another girl.
In the French educational system, there are two paths after middle school (collège): traditional high school (lycée) or vocational school. Students are not guaranteed a high school education; if their grades are not satisfactory, they are sent to vocational school. In a particularly moving scene, Marieme is told by a teacher the camera never shows that her only option is vocational school. With an expression that looks like a mix between a childish pout and adult defiance, Marieme protests but is ultimately unsuccessful.¬
It is at this vulnerable moment that Marieme meets the bande de filles: Lady (Assa Sylla), Adiatou (Lindsay Karamoh), and Fily (Mariétou Touré). Encircling her with the protection of their fearless demeanors, they show Marieme how to use society’s stereotypes about black women to her advantage. While shopping in the mall, a white saleswoman follows Marieme around the store, suspecting her of shoplifting. The other girls immediately surround the saleswoman, accusing her of following Marieme because of her skin color. Upon exiting the store, the girls laugh about the incident and reveal that they actually did steal some dresses. Soon after, Marieme becomes a true member of the bande de filles, renamed “Vic” with a necklace from Lady, a physical marker of her ongoing transformation.
The rest of the film traces this transformation as her friends, societal expectations, , and her impulse to escape her dreary reality all influence her actions.. The synth music from the opening scene plays as a leitmotif for each time Marieme changes. She straightens her hair, starts wearing makeup, turns to petty crime, and uses physical intimidation to achieve her goals. The artistic cinematography shows this as well. The film is awash with shades of blue that represent Marieme’s true feminine development, but stark moments of red—the bra Marieme takes during the fight, the red dress she is forced to wear later on—interrupt this scheme to reflect society’s invasions into her growth.
These expressive sensibilities and noticeable lack of convention in Bande de Filles make it a gripping film, though it might not be accessible to everyone. Bande de Filles is remarkably uninterested in a conventional plot structure, choosing instead to chart a story based mainly on character development, a choice that is quite common in French films. Furthermore, the few male characters—Ismaël, Djibril, and Abou (a man Marieme begins to work for later in the film) fall into stereotype on occasion. It is unclear whether this is a result of a purposeful lack of time spent on their development or an attempt by Sciamma to reverse the common trend of stereotypical female characters.
Sciamma depicts the girls’ adversity with a matter-of-fact tone; there is no sociopolitical agenda or moral compass driving her direction. The film admires and respects these women as true people with complexities and an unfair share of adversity. There are sweet moments interspersed throughout the film: Marieme giggling with her younger sister and the bande de filles comforting one another. But the message of the film remains clear: when on the cusp of their futures, black girls are forced to fulfill society’s expectations of what they are to become as a means of survival.