The definition of “girlhood” has been explored both inside and out in recent history — some have succeeded, many have failed and a select few have been able to convey with incredible subtlety the unique experience of a modern girl. “Cuties” is writer and director Maïmouna Doucouré’s attempt to capture this elusive subject, and the result is a film that explores the uncomfortable, the unprecedented and the uncanny at a difficult intersection between society and its girls.
The film follows Amy (Fathia Youssouf), an 11-year-old girl whose family moved from Senegal, in her awkward transition from her home life to school in France. Her family’s strict religious and cultural practices have heavily shielded Amy from wider French culture, prompting her to befriend a group of popular and unruly young girls at school. In her new social circle, Amy is presented with the challenges and curiosities that follow social media, gender roles and adolescence in the 21st century — most of which come into conflict with the practices and beliefs of her family.
In the film’s raw look at some sensitive topics — including the sexualization of young girls — “Cuties” may be seen as offensive by some. Unlike most films, “Cuties” is determined in its refusal to shy away from taboos, sometimes resulting in hard-to-watch scenes that will likely make viewers uncomfortable. Discomfort, however, appears to be Doucouré’s precise intention. She spends ample screen time focusing, visually and otherwise, on showcasing these issues by discrete example. Through this, it appears, she hopes to question, challenge and exploit society’s contradictory views of girlhood.
Doucouré shot the film almost entirely from a child’s perspective, following young Amy as she traverses the challenges of balancing peer interaction with a strict culture at home. The result is somewhat resemblant of “The Florida Project,” delivering a childlike tone yet with an increasingly dark subject matter. Shots from Amy’s point of view capture her angst and curiosity as well as her immaturity by leveling the camera down to her height. This forces adult characters to often exist out of frame, enlarging the young girls’ experiences throughout the film — both physically and metaphorically. This choice particularly centers the film around Amy’s emotions, ensuring that her feelings, though rarely explicit, are always captured with great precision.
Additionally, Doucouré’s storytelling emits great power, most notably in the nuance of its delivery. Amy’s encounters with sexuality through social media continually shape her understanding of her place in the world, and the film shows us this through moments in which she interacts with adults. Particularly uncomfortable scenes come in this form, as Amy confuses sexuality as a means to influence older men. In this sentiment, however, the film points to a much larger issue of femininity intertwined with over-sexualization in today’s society, planting this issue in our minds without ever saying a word.
At its core, though, Amy’s character is a clash between traditionalism and a world that has disregarded it, yet Doucouré’s script remains mindfully impartial when it comes to picking sides. The strength in her storytelling is often not in creating these soapbox-y dichotomies or laying out clean-cut morals for the viewer, but instead in shaping a story just ambiguous enough to force its audience to come to its own conclusions. This, in essence, is the same freedom the film propels Amy to have: the simple freedom of choice. Though her character struggles with the conflicting viewpoints presented to her, “Cuties” closes the curtain with Amy deciding what being a girl means to her.
Ultimately, Doucouré’s film is entirely open-ended, and that is precisely its beauty. The film has its moments of rage, confusion, discovery and discomfort, yet these emotions inevitably become simple colors in the mosaic of Amy’s character. This mosaic leads us to believe that, to Doucouré, girlhood is not a matter of assimilation or traditionalism, but is instead the discovery only the girl herself may come to understand and appreciate.