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Young women duke it out in Girlhood, but the men hold all the cards

French director Celine Sciamma looks at gender politics in an African-immigrant community.

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Girlhood, a French drama about poor black teens on the outskirts of Paris, opens with an electrifying sequence set to throbbing dance rock by composer Jean-Baptiste de Laubier. Football players burst onto a gridiron for a night game, their play rendered in slow motion, and in their helmets and shoulder pads they look like pretty tough dudes. A last-minute touchdown prompts wild celebration, but as the players yank off their helmets, the dudes turn out to be women, who separate into their respective teams and file past each other to exchange high fives. When they're done they melt into a single crowd, winners and losers alike, jumping and cheering in sheer exhilaration at their shared power. Director Céline Sciamma backs up for a long shot as the lights on the field are shut down, cutting short the girls' victory rave and plunging them into darkness. One gets the feeling that otherwise they'd be there all night.

The scene is a potent image of feminine power, though in keeping with the movie it shows strong young women locked into a men's game. Girlhood follows one of the players, a 16-year-old misfit named Marieme, as she flunks out of school, joins a little sisterhood of delinquents, and edges toward a life of crime. Most of the screen time is taken up by conflicts among women—conflicts that sometimes escalate into physical violence—yet one begins to realize toward the end of the movie that the real friction here is between women and the male-dominant culture of their African-immigrant communities. Just after the adrenaline-raising gridiron scene there's an eerie sequence in which the mass of women, chattering gaily on their way home, fall silent as they pass a few guys who glare at them from the side of the road. As the group gradually disperses, the women bid each other good night, but the spontaneous jubilation of the opening scene has been snuffed out, just like that, by a handful of disapproving men.

Played by Karidja Touré (in her screen debut), Marieme comes from a household constricted by male privilege even though most of the occupants are women. Her father is long gone, and her mother spends so many hours slaving away on a nighttime cleaning crew that she barely registers as a character. In her absence, the lord and master of the household is Marieme's older brother, Djibril, who comes home to find his sister playing his video games and promptly punches her in the head. Marieme cares for her two younger sisters and dreams of romance with Ismael, one of her brother's friends, but Ismael fears that getting involved with her will invite conflict with Djibril. A poor student, Marieme learns that she can't be promoted to high school and will have to enter a vocational program, a one-way ticket to poverty and subservience. "I want to be like the others, normal," she begs the school official who's given her the bad news. "It's a bit too late for that," the woman replies.

Rejected and demoralized, Marieme is easy prey for the trio of bad girls who first bully her and then adopt her as one of their own. "You look cranky," observes the leader, ironically nicknamed Lady. "I'm interested." Before long Marieme is wearing a leather jacket and hanging around outside the high school to rob smaller girls of their lunch money, which she obediently passes along to Lady (Assa Sylla) and her two lieutenants, Fily (Marietou Touré) and Adiatou (Lindsay Karamoh). Tall, forceful, and pretty, Lady is everything Marieme would like to be; the guys all want her and the girls all fear her. An expedition to Paris initiates Marieme into the gang, especially after a white salesgirl accosts her in a department store and the other three rally to her defense. Sharing a hotel room that evening, the four young women get drunk together, dress to the nines, and dance unabashedly to Rihanna's "Diamonds." Marieme's brother keeps calling, wanting to know where she is, but Lady advises Marieme to turn off her phone. "You do what you want," she insists, apparently the first person who's ever given Marieme that advice.

Physical force governs every relationship in Girlhood—when Marieme returns home from Paris, her brother chokes her into submission—and eventually it even reverses the power dynamic between her and Lady. A feud has been brewing between Lady's crew and another gang of girls, egged on by the men in the neighborhood, and when Lady and the other gang leader finally square off, Lady gets her ass kicked. Not only does the other woman take her down, she pulls Lady's shirt off over her head, and her humiliation is captured in a cell phone video that soon goes viral. Lady's father responds by cutting her hair, and the guys in the neighborhood jeer at her. "You shame us all, dumbass," declares one guy. "Playing the warrior in the 'hood. You're just a chick." Marieme wants revenge on the rival gang, and when Lady refuses to set up a rematch, Marieme arranges one herself. This time the other girl goes down; Marieme yanks off her opponent's shirt, produces a jackknife, and cuts off the girl's red bra, pocketing it as a war trophy.

Even as Marieme moves up in the female pecking order, however, her real life choices are diminishing. After she and Ismael spend the night together, Djibril attacks her, accusing her of shaming him, herself, and the family. Harassed by her brother at home and branded a slut around town, Marieme hires on with Abou, a drug dealer in a neighboring district who prizes her because (in France, anyway) she's too young for prison. Lady, Fily, and Adiatou warn her that she'll wind up as a prostitute. "You need to wake up," Marieme shoots back. "You're going nowhere." In another slow-motion sequence, Sciamma cuts from black to a close-up of Marieme climbing red carpeted stairs to a swank, all-white party where she's been sent to make a sale. In contrast to her usual hoodie and jeans, she wears black heels, a flaming red cocktail dress, and an ice-blond wig. She's never looked more womanly, and she's never been more trapped.

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