Girlhood does almost play like the answer to Boyhood.

If you’ve ever been a teenage girl, there’s a scene in Girlhood (in French, Bande de filles) that cuts to an essence of that experience like a shaft of light cuts through a tunnel. The film’s protagonist, Marieme (Karidja Toure), is in a cheap hotel room with three cool girlfriends, drinking brown liquor mixed with Coke and smoking a bit of weed. Rihanna’s “Diamonds” plays, and Marieme watches her friends, dolled up and drunk, twirling and teasing each other, precocious and kidlike all at once. The camera lingers on Marieme’s face, on an expression that seems to read, I am in exactly the right place at the right time. We will never be more beautiful than now. The moment is worth noting, because the circumstances that surround Marieme grow increasingly twisted and suffocating throughout the film.

The story takes place in contemporary France, our protagonist is 16 years old and black, she lives in one of the giant public-housing complexes on the periphery of Paris. If you grew up in American suburbs, the experience of France’s low-income suburbs (les banlieues) is far from an equivalent. It’s far from the reality experienced by most of the light-skinned, affluent, and liberal elite that populate inner Paris.

On January 7, French suburbs drew global scrutiny when two French gunmen of Algerian descent attacked the offices of Charlie Hebdo. Mainstream French society had already stigmatized its own suburbs and the North African communities living in them for decades, but the Charlie attack seemed to plunge the whole world into absolutist takes on what had happened. The tragedy became a symbol of the war on free speech, France’s failure to integrate its Muslim and North African populations, an ideological clash with international stakes, or an identity crisis breaking down the republic of liberté, égalité, fraternité. Nuance and individual stories left the conversation when the gunmen entered the door.

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Which brings us back to Marieme, who, as the film progresses, tries on several different identities in response to her changing environment. The film doesn’t treat Marieme like a helpless victim of socioeconomics, nor does it attach a moral message to her experimentation with sex or dealing drugs. (The closest American parallel is probably the 2003 film Thirteen, which carried heavy “loss of innocence” and teen hysteria vibes.) Instead, the viewer watches Marieme as she grasps on to various relationships with family, friends, partners, and employers—then detaches herself from those relationships as they become unhealthy.

Marieme’s quest for identity is also a quest for survival. As opposed to most stories told about “troubled” teen girls, Girlhood depicts someone navigating her world in a hyperrational way. The complicated truth expressed in Girlhood is that it’s often a survivor’s strength that forges identities and occupations condemned by the rest of society—not weakness or hormonal confusion. recommended