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Film Review: “Cuties” Offers a Complex Examination of Tween Agency

Written by: Christopher Llewellyn Reed | September 8th, 2020

Film poster: “Cuties” (in original French version, “Mignonnes”)

Cuties (“Mignonnes”) (Maïmouna Doucouré, 2020) 3 out of 4 stars.

Its dispiriting (and misleading) American movie trailer aside, the new French film Cuties, from first-time feature director Maïmouna Doucouré, provides a fascinating, complex and disturbing portrait of tween girlhood. The film showcases the genuine unease and identity confusion generated by a society that simultaneously sexualizes children and reacts in horror when those same children embrace their burgeoning sexuality. A civilization that wants to have it both ways on such a fraught issue divests itself of the right to feel outrage, yet the morality police never examine their own sins. Thanks to someone like Doucouré, however, the untenable nature of such a position is made evident. And that’s only part of the story, as Cuties is also about female agency, cultural adaptation and the role that patriarchy plays in all of the above. Though not always a perfectly assured cinematic discussion of its central themes, this vibrant drama, filled with majestic performances from its young stars, succeeds enough as both entertainment and polemic to be well worth watching.

Fathia Youssouf plays 11-year-old Amy, whose parents are from Senegal, though she and her mother now live in Paris. Early on, she discovers that her absent father is soon to return with a second, younger wife, a bit of news that she does not digest well (nor does her mom), especially since her older aunt has decided that the upcoming nuptials are an opportunity to train the girl in the ways of being a traditional Senegalese woman. It’s no wonder, then, that when she discovers that female classmates at her new school are practicing dance moves for an upcoming competition, she gravitates to that activity as an escape. Twerking beats cooking any day, it seems.

l-r: Médina El Aidi-Azouni and Fathia Youssouf in CUTIES ©Netflix

Closest to her is Angelica (Médina El Aidi-Azouni), a neighbor in her apartment complex, whose wildness attracts the initially more restrained Amy. Though the other girls are reluctant to let Amy in, her tenacious spirit and knack for choreography eventually wins them over, though there will be many emotional ups and downs, as well as dramatic reversals, along the way. The stakes are so small – it’s but a tiny regional contest coming up – yet they loom enormous in our protagonist’s blossoming gaze, these kids so desperate to matter in this world that they seize hungrily on the readily available images on YouTube and elsewhere, where “likes” equal value, for affirmation. When you have no real power, you take what you can.

Though Doucouré occasionally stumbles in the obviousness of her points, she is always perfectly in charge of her actors and her cinematography, presenting scene after scene of genuine emotional charge, framed in striking composition and vivid color. Youssouf is a genuine revelation, the yearning to be something more than what she thinks life has planned for her palpable in every glance and gesture. Perhaps, once this particular misadventure is over, with its lessons learned, her Amy will now be ready to take on the next step of becoming her own woman and breaking the chains imposed on her by both her cultures. The obstacles are large, but at least the film ends on a subtle note that they may be surmountable. Here’s hoping.

Fathia Youssouf in CUTIES ©Netflix
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Christopher Llewellyn Reed is a film critic, filmmaker, and educator. A member of the Washington DC Area Film Critics Association (WAFCA) and a Rotten Tomatoes-approved film critic, he is Managing Editor at Film Festival Today; lead film critic at Hammer to Nail; the host of the award-winning Reel Talk with Christopher Llewellyn Reed, from Dragon Digital Media; and the author of Film Editing: Theory and Practice. In addition, he is one of the cohosts of The Fog of Truth, a podcast devoted to documentary cinema.

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