Reviewed by: Amber Wilkinson

"If this gang of ideas doesn’t quite hang together as it should, Benyamina still makes her mark with some brilliant moments."

Houda Benyamina’s debut feature Divines has continued the awards path it began with the Camera d’Or at Cannes by picking up the best first film title, along with awards for its lead actress and co-star at the Césars. It’s a promising, if uneven, piece of filmmaking set in the socially deprived banlieue of Paris memorably brought to the screen by Céline Sciamma’s similarly femme-centric Girlhood.

While Sciamma’s film mostly focused on the formation of self-identity, Benyamina is concerned with the motivational energy of money. Her protagonist Dounia (Oulaya Amamra, the director’s sister) is arguably even more marginalised than her best mate Maimouna (Déborah Lukumuena), who lives in the maze of high rises in the area. Dounia comes from the nearby Roma ghetto, where she lives with her drunken, difficult mother and extended family. Theirs is a world where only two things talk – friendship and cold hard cash. After all, when you’ve been denied social status, a status symbol is the next best thing.

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Dounia is the driving force of the outfit, coming up with new ways to stay on top, while Maimouna rides emotional and physical shotgun, whether they’re packing shoplifting beneath their chadors or hanging out on the catwalk above the stage at a local theatre, eating their ill-gotten gains and ogling the dancers below. Dounia is also ambitious, hatching a plan to get them in with the local gang boss Rebecca (Jisca Kalvanda).

The first part of the film has the headlong abandon of youth, with early selfie movies from the girls quickly immersing us in their world and their friendship. The possibility of romance for Dounia with security guard and wannabe dancer Djigui (Kevin Mischel) is also handled with plenty of creative verve. Amamra’s performance bristles with a spiky unpredictable energy, dovetailing with the warm and easygoing turn by Lukumuena to form a winning combination.

Believability starts to be a problem, however. Given, for example, the real-life lack of equal opportunities for women in most workplaces - a point that the film itself makes in one of its more on-the-nose scenes - it’s hard to believe that Rebecca would be a queen-pin with sculpted guys on tap or that she would have risen to such a vaulted position at such a young age.

Like many debut filmmakers, Benyamina also has the urge to cram in as many ideas and styles as possible, as though fearing she may never get another chance, although perhaps that is partially due to the three-way script collaboration with Romaine Compingt (150 Milligrams) and Malik Rumineau. As the film gathers steam, they also opt to introduce thriller elements that are hard to swallow, along with violence that, depending on how you look at the situation, goes too far or not far enough.

But if this gang of ideas doesn’t quite hang together as it should, Benyamina still makes her mark with some brilliant moments. A scene, in which we float along for the ride as Dounia takes Maimouna on an imaginary Ferrari spree is particularly striking and though some later dance/violence cross-cutting feels overly choreographed, it nonetheless shows a fearless imagination is at work.

Reviewed on: 25 Feb 2017
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Story of an Arabic drug dealer in a Parisian ghetto.

Director: Houda Benyamina

Writer: Houda Benyamina, Romain Compingt, Malik Rumeau

Starring: Oulaya Amamra, Déborah Lukumuena, Kevin Mischel, Jisca Kalvanda, Yasin Houicha, Majdouline Idrissi, Bass Dhem

Year: 2016

Runtime: 105 minutes

BBFC: 15 - Age Restricted

Country: France

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