Blowhard, Esq. writes:
I had planned on avoiding this — I didn’t find the subject matter or controversy compelling — but my curiosity got the better of me. The conservatives condemning this movie as a celebration of tween sexualization are off-base, I think, although their outrage is a little understandable given the original, misleading but now-withdrawn Netflix poster that sparked the outcry. It might’ve been a good idea to take a look at the movie before erupting, though, because there is much in the movie that conservatives would likely agree with.
The feature debut of French-Senegalese writer-director Maïmouna Doucouré, it’s the coming-of-age story of Amy (played by Fathia Youssef, that’s her on the far left of the cover photo), an 11-year-old West African girl who has just moved into a Parisian housing project with her mother and two younger siblings. Bored by her hidebound Islamic culture that preaches deference to men, Amy finds herself entranced by a group of girls at her school who have a hip-hop dance troupe. Many of the familiar MEAN GIRLS beats are hit: Amy is initially rejected, bullied, and tested until she proves her worth and is accepted by the group.
Like Larry Clark’s KIDS, whose title CUTIES consciously recalls, the children of Amy’s world are more or less feral. Parents are a spectral presence, assuming they’re present at all. While the kids in KIDS centered around heroin and casual sex, and the male teenage gang in A CLOCKWORK ORANGE coalesced around violence (there’s a scene, captured on the French movie poster, that seems to deliberately echo a famous sequence from Kubrick’s movie), Amy’s cohort mainlines the validation they receive on Instagram. Their only currency is their budding sexuality, so they exploit it even though they’re mostly unaware of the effect it has. They twerk, shimmy, and pout because that’s what the adults do and it gets them the attention they crave. The girls’ dance troupe is preparing for a competition and Amy earns their respect by introducing even more provocative moves that she sees in, while not exactly a porn movie, the kind of pornified hip-hop video that has catapulted Cardi B to fame. Doucouré shoots their dancing in an intentionally robotic manner: master shot, close-up of bare midriff, close-up of thighs, close-up of butt, master shot, repeat. Is it celebratory? Is it erotic? In my opinion, no, hardly. It looks sad and desperate. It looks like a bunch of little girls lost at sea.
When her phone is taken away from her, Amy begins a downward spiral that involves awkwardly trying to seduce her older cousin, publishing an explicit nude on social media, stabbing a male classmate in the hand with a pencil, and almost killing someone. The movie’s climax presents her with a choice: attend her father’s wedding to his second wife (a wife and wedding which her mother regards as a great humiliation) or attend the dance competition. Via the aforementioned nearly attempted murder, Amy attends the dance competition where her team performs their hypersexualized routine. The audience reaction is mostly disgust. Some clap, at least one male leers, but most of the women in the audience signal their revulsion. Is the movie trying to have it both ways: exploiting the girls while pretending to disapprove? Maybe, but given the events leading up to the competition, the audience reaction, and the fact that Amy abandons it in the middle of her performance, it’s clear what the film is saying.
Doucouré falters, I think, in the movie’s ending. After leaving the competition, she returns home, puts on a modest sweater and jeans, goes to her father’s wedding reception, but decides not to stay. While outside she begins playing jumprope with some other girls, leaping higher and higher into the air, smiling, as the camera tracks her. It’s similar to the fanciful finish in THE FLORIDA PROJECT that I recall Fabrizio telling me that he found unconvincing. I guess we’re meant to see that this resilient black girl has risen above her obstacles. Has she? The preceding 90 minutes reasonably wonder what will nourish girls like Amy, what will center and guide them, and finds nothing of much value in the culture around her. A more ambiguous ending — I can’t help but think of something like THE 400 BLOWS — would be more appropriate given everything we’ve seen.
The conservatives attacking the movie are employing the same “normalization” argument that has become common. Kim Kardashian and other celebrities invoked it recently with their #StopHateForProfit campaign that calls on Facebook to censor things that make them feel bad, and progressives used this argument a few years ago during the 50 Shades of Grey phenom. The argument goes something like, “X idea is so odious that it must not be accorded the respect we give to other ideas, therefore it should be scrubbed from public life lest it irredeemably corrupt innocent souls, American democracy, or that most sacred of objects, my social media feeds.” Context doesn’t matter, perspective doesn’t matter. I guess the one thing budding Bowdlers can agree on is that small-l liberalism has failed and they’re going to duke it out over who gets to forcibly impose their worldview on the other.
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I was considering watching it for no other reason than curiosity about the media’s latest brouhaha over yet another conservative reaction to (loose?) morals involving a tertiary view of family breakdown and conservative condemnation of it. Which is fair, but apparently not on point. Sounds like they didn’t bother watching it or trying to identify with the character’s circumstances, which unfortunately involve after effects of some of liberalism’s worst pathologies. Thanks for saving me. I’ve seen enough of this never ending show.
We also watched it out of curiosity and found the same narrative shortcomings as you did, particularly the unearned, unconvincing ending. But I disagree with you that there is no cause for controversy. I found the dance scenes extremely exploitative and gratuitous, with the camera lingering in close up on actual 11 year old girls’ gyrating crotches and twerking asses, usually in form fitting shorts. Directorial intent here is beside the point. In order to film a critique of how a culture sexualizes young girls, she quite aggressively sexualizes young girls. The scenes in question would have been uncomfortable with 15-17 year old actors, and it’s highly troubling to the point of disgusting with 11 year olds. I can’t imagine what the girls’ parents were thinking when signing off on this. In my view, this is the most exploitative use of pre-teen actors since Pretty Baby (which of course was far more exploitative while also being a much better film).