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AFI Fest: Celine Sciamma's 'Girlhood:' A splintered self

"Bande de Filles," titled "Girlhood" in the US, is a coming-of-age story about a girl named Vic, played by Karidja Touré.
"Bande de Filles," titled "Girlhood" in the US, is a coming-of-age story about a girl named Vic, played by Karidja Touré. Strand Releasing

In his final dispatch from this year's AFI Fest, Off-Ramp contributor RH Greene gives his thoughts on Celine Sciamma's French "coming of age" drama "Girlhood," one of his favorite films of the fest.

It's understandable that Strand Releasing would want to retitle French filmmaker Celine Sciamma's wonderful new coming of age drama "Bande de Filles" as "Girlhood" for U.S. consumption. What indie distributor isn't looking at the grosses for Richard Linklater's "Boyhood" ($42 million global and counting) without smacking its lips?

Still, "Girlhood" (which took Cannes by storm this year) is a wildly different film from Linklater's one-of-a-kind time lapse stunt piece, and it's an ensemble effort in ways "Boyhood," with its single main protagonist, could never be. "Bande de Filles" (translated roughly as "A Gang of Girls") is the far more appropriate title. It speaks not only to the artificial family at the core of the drama but also to the splintered soul that is "Girlhood's" center.

WATCH the trailer for "Girlhood"

Set in a Franco-African Paris slum that will feel like the mountains of Mars to fans of "Midnight in Paris," "Girlhood" tracks a few pivotal years in the life of Vic (Karidja Touré), a shy middle school youngster who yearns for a better life. When we first meet her, she's an awkward child dreaming of greater things, symbolized for her by advancement to the next level at school. But the system (embodied by the brutal off-camera voice of an apathetic guidance counselor) insists Vic is suited only to "vocational" training, a dreary future Vic has already lived out vicariously through her overworked cipher of a mother, and which she will do almost anything to escape.

With her educational dreams dashed, Vic is adopted by a female street gang, headed by the formidable Lady (Assa Sylla). It's here that she finds personal empowerment — partly through petty thievery, but mostly by forging friendships based on mutual love and trust.

Abetted by Sciamma's versatile but unobtrusive visual sense, Touré gives a tour de force performance. Heartbreakingly unsophisticated in the early scenes, Touré's Vic blossoms before our eyes into a self-assured adolescent, only to attain a sadder but wiser view of her place in the world as she moves through more desperate criminal associations, and then on toward the uncertainties of early adulthood.

In "Girlhood's" thematic centerpiece, Vic and her girl-gang friends Lady, Adiatou, and Fily pool their ill-gotten gains and rent a hotel room for a night of innocently decadent fun. They smoke a little weed, put on filched evening gowns so newly stolen there are anti-theft devices jutting out of the straps, and then perform a long and giddy karaoke pantomime to a song whose lyrics run: "So shine bright/Tonight/You and I/We're beautiful like diamonds in the sky." Sciamma lets the song play out in full, her camera caressing and celebratory by turns, but also aware of how this stolen moment of solidarity is simultaneously compromised and real.

(From Truffaut's masterpiece, "The 400 Blows")

In a final shot worthy of another great French coming of age drama called "The 400 Blows," Sciamma sends Vic off toward an uncertain future with both her vulnerability and her hard-won inner strength intact. It's just one more grace note in a movie full of nuance and revelation. "Girlhood" is that rare narrative that both acknowledges the complexity of adolescent life, and is able to match it, with a lyrical sophistication of its own.

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