We live in an age of social media where everything is done for “likes” and the validation of others — where women and girls are often objectified, and sex sells. This is the world in Cuties (original title Mignonnes), where 11-year-old Senegalese Amy is coming of age and grappling with what it means to be a woman. Torn between her more conservative Muslim family and the more urbane, free-spirit fast life of her new home in Paris, France. Amy is struggling with the pressures of adolescence and the responsibilities of helping take care of her younger brother while also trying to find herself and fit in with her new peers at school. This age is often fraught with bullies and peer pressure, and being “different” from the others often makes you a target, and you stick out like a sore thumb. To avoid this, Amy tries to fit in with a group of free-spirited, rebellious girls who have a dance crew.
In what starts as somewhat of a “Mean Girls” type relationship, after some taunting and bullying, Amy tries her best to impress the crew (known as the “Cuties”) and tries to assimilate to a more “Western” lifestyle. So, where else do you go to see how to act than the internet and social media?! Amy then takes what she learns back to the crew and infuses some new, more adult dance moves into their routine for the upcoming dance competition. All the while, things at home are spiraling out of control as Amy realizes that her father, who is still in Senegal, has taken a second wife. Amy is now torn about what it really means to be a woman — on the one hand, she sees her submissive mother and the male-dominated culture of her religion. On the other hand, she sees the more independent, free-spirit “womanhood” of confident, brash women who own their sexuality. But which one is right?
That is the conflict at the core of Maïmouna Doucouré‘s French feature directorial debut. How do you balance the two worlds — not only as someone who is of two different cultures but as a young girl on the cusp of womanhood. Doucouré, who also wrote the screenplay, does a touching yet effective job of showing this pull in opposite directions. She makes us question our own thoughts and conceptions of “womanhood” while thinking about how the images and personifications are consumed and digested by young girls — especially when it is done without guidance and context. The director/writer does an effective job of portraying the innocence and naiveté of Amy and the other girls while also making the viewer uncomfortable with the sexualization of the pre-teens in the film. It should be uncomfortable seeing young girls emulate grown women and try and be “sexy” without fully understanding the consequences of what they are doing (which is played out in full in the condom/STD scene by the river). But this is just a reflection of what is happening in society when we glorify and objectify little girls in beauty pageants, dance troupes, and they go viral on social media. There is a disconnect that we don’t adequately address the consequences of.
On top of the story that speaks to a generation and countless girls torn between two worlds, the cast of young actors was amazing. Fathia Youssouf, who plays “Amy,” is a natural. She starts off the film in a care-free childhood and quickly grows into someone far different, while in the end, coming full circle. Youssouf is raw and full of emotion — we see the transformation that she goes through from child to “woman” with almost no guidance. The loss of innocence is staggering, but Youssouf carries the film effortlessly (from mimicking stripper culture and the images seen in pop culture to the emotional moments when she is pulled back towards her Muslim, familial culture). It’s that awkward time when you’re not yet a “woman” but not a child — the balancing act that Doucouré and Youssouf portray so poignantly. The rest of the “Cuties” are just as great. Every one of the girls is raw and natural, which lends a real authenticity to their performances — either of them could be a little girl you know craving attention and acceptance.
The way the filmmaker used the visual image to enhance the story and convey things in scenes in which Amy is by herself was genius, and the director’s use of symbolism with the wedding dress that her father sends her was perfect. As well as the juxtaposition of the young acne-filled pre-teen faces coupled with “sexualized” dance moves and opera music or the scene in which the realization of her actions washes over her (Amy) just takes the film up a notch. The film is expertly crafted, visually beautiful, touching, and thought-provoking — definitely a solid directorial debut.
In the end, this film leaves us questioning whether our children are growing up too fast and how do we balance that with their freedom of expression and youthful freedom. The film is uncomfortable — as it should be — and a fresh lens in which to analyze pop culture and our societal norms and the impact our conceptions of “womanhood” has on our young girls. Hopefully, this film can overcome the outcries, controversy, and “cancel culture” surrounding Netflix’s marketing of the film (the “sexualized” poster for the film), and folks will actually watch the film because there is a much-needed message at the heart of this film.