Streaming Spotlight: extraordinary girls

Seven films to watch for International Day Of The Girl Child

by Jennie Kermode

There are around 900 million girls in the world yet when it comes to cinema – as with many other art forms before it – their stories are rarely told. On International Day Of The Girl Child, we’re looking at seven films which remind us of the potential of girls and the awesome things they can do when they get – or seize – the opportunity. All of these films are suitable for children to view (though some have distressing content which you may want to talk through afterwards), but they all have something to offer to adult audiences, too, and they remind us that even the smallest girls can have a big impact on the world around them.

Hushpuppy in Beasts Of The Southern Wild
Hushpuppy in Beasts Of The Southern Wild

Beasts Of The Southern Wild - Amazon Prime, Google Play, Rakuten TV

Quvenzhané Wallis was four years old when she auditioned for this film. Director Benh Zeitlin had been looking for a girl aged five to seven but her performance at audition blew him away, and viewers will quickly come to understand why. She plays Hushpuppy, living on the margins in a Louisiana bayou community whose members refuse to abandon it despite the ever-rising waters. Narrating as well as starring, she presents a magical realist world threatened by storms and giant aurochs. Zeitlin’s style is immersive and reminds us of what it was like to be that age, though few of us will have been as formidable then as Hushpuppy, who longs for her absent mother and is constantly fearful of monsters but lets nothing dampen her spirits.

Merida in Brave
Merida in Brave

Brave - Disney Channel, Amazon Prime

Despite the way most histories may portray them, women in Medieval Europe were not all passive. The Scottish history of the period is full of examples of girls every bit as fierce and capable as the men around them, and Disney’s Brave showcases one such fiery spirit in the form of Merida (voiced by Kelly Macdonald), a teenager who doesn’t like the idea of getting married, preferring to focus on her archery skills. She’ll need those and more after running off to the forest and being a little too trusting with a crooked-nosed, broomstick-bearing old woman. But this isn’t just a film about courage and valour – it’s also about the importance of family relationships, with Merida and her mother striving to rebuild their bond.

Pai in Whale Rider
Pai in Whale Rider

Whale Rider - Amazon Prime

Another girl frustrated by traditional expectations comes to the fore in Whale Rider, despite it being set in modern times. Maori orphan Paikea (Keisha Castle-Hughes) lives with her grandfather, whom she adores, but he longs for a boy to raise as leader for their tribe and when she tries to behave like a boy, he seems to resent her even more. Seeking a different way to impress him, she studies folklore and dreams of becoming a prophet, but it’s the loss of a community treasure and the stranding of seven whales that gives her the chance to come into her own. Castle-Hughes became the youngest ever Oscar nominee for her work in this film, and Pai is memorable as a character who, in the absence of parents or siblings, is passionately devoted to her people.

Parvana in The Breadwinner
Parvana in The Breadwinner

The Breadwinner - Netflix, Amazon Prime, Google Play

In some places, life as a girl is particularly tough. When the Taliban take away her father, Parvana (voiced by Saara Chaudry) finds her family at risk of destitution. Women and girls are not allowed to go outdoors, so the only way they can get food is if Parvana disguises herself as a boy. Simply yet evocatively animated, this film is based on a number of true stories from Afghanistan. As well as reckoning with the danger that its heroine faces, it also reflects on the ways that enjoying the freedoms of life as a boy changes her, altering her relationships with her relatives and inspiring her to try and free her father from jail. Though her circumstances are awful, Parvana is more than just a survivor, she’s her own person, discovering her full potential.

Lyra in The Golden Compass
Lyra in The Golden Compass

The Golden Compass - Amazon Prime, Google Play

As His Dark Materials finds a new following on the small screen, it’s worth looking back at Chris Weitz’s big screen take on the first novel in the series. It’s a handsomely constructed piece of fantasy but what stands out most about it is Dakota Blue’s performance as Lyra, a girl who runs along rooftops at night and asks ‘too many’ questions. Attracting the attention of the wrong sort of people, she faces serious danger and survives only due to her wits, determination and ability to win over others to her cause. There are numerous stories like this about boys but it’s rare that a girl gets to have a special destiny. It’s also rare for girls to get to be as physical as Lyra, who never shies away from a challenge.

Satsuki and Mei in My Neighbour Totoro
Satsuki and Mei in My Neighbour Totoro

My Neighbour Totoro - Netflix

Not one but two brave girls feature in this Studio Ghibli classic: sisters who have moved to the countryside with their father after their mother has taken ill. As the latter stays in hospital, they devote themselves to the mysteries of a new home and the forest surrounding it. It’s the youngest, Mei, who first meets the mighty forest spirit mentioned in the title, but when Mei goes missing, it’s eight year old Satsuki who calls upon his help to find her. The world around them is full of wonders, exquisitely animated, but the struggles they face are part of day to day life for children the world over. Mei’s stubborn optimism and Satsuki’s courage in taking on new responsibilities light up a story about finding a place in the world.

Dhunu and friend in Village Rockstars
Dhunu and friend in Village Rockstars

Village Rockstars - Amazon Prime

Rima Das’ stunningly beautiful film set in the wide paddy fields of Assam is a reminder that there are spirited girls to be found everywhere, no matter how remote. Dhunu (Bhanita Das) may be descended from generations of peasant farmers but she’s determined that her destiny will be different. Like kids the world over, she plans to be in a rock band, and she’s going to make it happen even if all she has to play on is a rough-hewn wooden guitar with no strings. All the actors here are non-professionals and the village rituals are real. Dhunu constantly gets in trouble for stepping out of line but her mother, whom life has forced into a broader role, backs her up at key moments. This is a portrait of cultural change infused with spontaneity and fierce joy.

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