Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

"The complex interactions between the girls are beautifully captured." | Photo: Courtesy of Sundance Institute

Maïmouna Doucouré's first feature, drawing on her own experiences as a child, Cuties caused tremendous controversy when it first reached screens. It has since won a César for its star Fathia Youssouf, who was named Best Newcomer. There's no doubt that the subject matter is difficult, dealing with issues around preteen sexuality, but the very fact that we struggle to have necessary conversations around this topic is one of the concerns it addresses, and any danger that it might titillate some adult viewers has to be considered in light of that fact that similar material is available in considerable quantities online - usually without any such challenging demand for empathy with the youngsters it depicts.

Youssouf stars as Amy, an 11-year-old girl from a Senegalese community whose strict religious upbringing clashes with the values of mainstream French society. Like any kid that age, she's trying to find her niche in the world and establish ways of expressing herself. Kids at school mock her plain clothing whilst cooing over the Cuties (Mignonnes in the original French, a term which doesn't carry quite the same history of association with pornography), a group of girls into fashion and dance, so naturally she wants to be like them. She's not cool enough, however, so she follows them around, eventually earning a place as a videographer for their routines and subsequently replacing one of their number after a falling-out.

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Her relationship with the group is troubled and inconsistent, as is often case with female friendships at that age. It is also intense. The idea that they might win a competition together becomes all-consuming. Amy needs a distraction from hr home life, where her mother is struggling to cope with her father's plans to take a second wife. Her grandmother is trying to force her into a traditional role and punishing her for the smallest infractions, but she can see quite clearly that there's no guarantee of such a role making her happy. Other members of the community are more sympathetic but nobody really has time to give her the attention she needs, and the message handed down from female elders is that girls should be kept away from sin by sheltering them from all discussion, all concept of sexual expression or desire.

Caught between two differently confusing worlds, Amy pursues her own desires aggressively as if trying to force the mixed messages she receives into some form that makes sense. At no point does she or any of the other girls evince desire for another person. The flirtatious moves they make and they way they dress are a form of play, a means of exploring their potential as they begin to grow up. Only Amy herself shows any awareness of how older men might perceive them, dancing in front of different men on two occasions in an attempt to take control of difficult situations. The film does not depict any abuse of the girls, though - through the reactions of one of these men and, later, of men in a crowd watching the troupe perform at an events - it clearly signals the danger they face. There's a blackly comic aspect to the latter scene, with the girls completely unaware of how horrified most of the people in their audience are. With all this in mind, this could actually be quite a useful film for parents to watch with daughters of a similar age so that they can highlight the dangers which kids all too often fail to recognise without such prompting.

There is a call here to recognise uncomfortable realities and to make girls part of the conversation around their own safety rather than simply trying to separate them from the world or deny the fact that they are growing up. With the exception of one of the girls' crush on a boy at school, they live their lives quite separately from their male counterparts. They expect similar freedoms and are all too easily turned into scapegoats for a cultural problem, blamed for causing discomfort when all of the actual danger stems from the behaviour of adults.

Doucouré has stressed that the young actresses approached their scenes very much as play and were not somehow sexually corrupted by the dance routines, which simply didn't have the same associations for them as they might for adults. These seems consistent with the naturalness of the performances throughout. Youssouf shines but she is far from the only talent on display here. The complex interactions between the girls are beautifully captured with a recognition of how cruel they can be which is usually missing from such depictions. We see their youth not just in their naivety about sexual matters but also in their self-centredness and short-sightedness about life in general, made manifest in a (on-sexual) shocking incident near the end in which Amy briefly fears she may have gone too far. We see them very much as people, complicated and difficult, without the soulless innocence that adults find it convenient to imagine.

A potent coming of age story with particular relevance to minority ethnic experiences, Cuties is a fresh look at girlhood which deserves to be commended for its bravery. If, for some, it's difficult to watch, it's worth reflecting that it's often difficult to be a girl that age. Doucouré has captured something raw, presenting a reality which ought not to be ignored.

Reviewed on: 14 Mar 2021
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Amy, 11 years old, meets a group of dancers called "Cuties”. Fascinated, she initiates herself to a sensual dance, hoping to join their band and escape family dysfunction...

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