In a sense, I am not the audience for this film. I am a white, middle-class, 30s, American male. The commonalities I share with a Muslim French-Senegalese female movie director are limited. Nevertheless, film is an art form that should broaden our world: gender, class, culture, language, religion, are all grist for the mill. A girl’s coming of age story, while outside my experience, should not be outside my ability to relate.
Cuties, the debut feature film directed by a female, French-Senegalese, director Maïmouna Doucouré, has an unfortunate, and some would say unfair, question mark hanging over it: Is it art, or is it soft pedophiliac trash? Almost as important, is it worth watching and who exactly is the audience in the first place? To me, the answers are not simple. “Nuanced” is the word I’m looking for.
Cuties, or Mignonnes, as it was originally titled, is a French film brought to the United States via Netflix. It is unfortunate that Netflix took one of the more uncomfortable scenes from the movie, of which there are many, and used that as its marketing campaign. Without viewing the actual film, nor the much less innocuous French marketing materials, Cuties managed to cause a right-wing backlash. However, there are legitimate concerns.
Amy (played dynamically by Fathia Youssouf Abdillahi) is an 11-year-old black Senegalese Muslim immigrant and a bit of a kleptomaniac; she has just moved to an apartment complex in one of the more impoverished regions of Paris. While it’s clear she loves her mother and her two little brothers, her attachment to a very traditional form of Islam seems tenuous. Surrounded by no real peers, she is isolated within her family’s traditional teachings. Things grow even more strained when she learns her father is bringing home a new wife, which devastates her mother, Mariam (Maïmouna Gueye.)
One day, Amy sees her soon-to-be-new-friend, Angelica (Medina El Aidi), a preteen in tight black leather pants, dancing to music as she moves clothes from the dryer into her clothing basket, and at one point, irons her own hair.
Amy begins to spy on Angelica’s friends and their dance group, the Cuties, a collection of four girls trying to enter and win a dance contest. To fit in, Amy makes some rather dubious choices at times: stealing a phone and money, taking risqué and outright inappropriate photos, and the movie’s primary controversy, the sexualized dancing she engages in.
As the movie progresses and her own physical womanhood (menstruation) approaches, the dancing becomes more and more risqué, upping the ante for likes on social media and school popularity, and eventually devolving into taking a picture of her own vagina to prove her “maturity.”
The movie appears to have several goals and themes, with the overall one being that growing up as a girl in the social media age, is definitely different from what many of us experienced as children of the pre-digital age. There’s no longer just peer pressure, there’s mass digital influence. Another theme is that it is unfortunate that society sexualizes and exploits children. The movie runs into a bit of a problem here, and that is that to denounce the sexualization and exploitation of children, it does it by doing some “imitation” of that very thing.
Make no mistake, It’s not porn by any stretch of the imagination, and anyone who believes it is, has either never seen the movie or has never seen pornography, but regular close-ups of pre-teen chests and buttocks will, one hopes, make the viewer somewhat uncomfortable. Which is, of course, the point.
And this is the problem with Western society, in general, and with children as entertainment in particular. To use children in entertainment seems to require them to be exploited, while the worst is not necessarily French cinema, but the Disney Channel.
Amy’s rebellion is also against her traditional Senegalese Muslim culture, including her distaste for her father’s polygamy. Her own aunt (Mbissine Therese Diop) points out that she was married when only a little older than 11-year-old Amy. It is as if neither east nor west will allow Amy to be a child.
In the end, I think that’s an important theme. Children should be allowed to be children. And I don’t like to spoil movies even that small bit, but it’s important that this theme be mentioned. Without it, the movie would be more open to suggestions of exploitation.
But how is the movie itself? As a piece of art and entertainment, it’s good. Very good, in fact. The kids are surprisingly good performers. Angelica, in particular, is especially humorous. The film is one-part comedy to three parts drama.
The film is well-shot, masterfully edited, and the music is definitely one of the highlights of it, playing bits of reggaeton and other dance tracks.
So, do I recommend it? Absolutely, to the right people. Even though this movie is about children, it should definitely NOT be shown to them. This film is for mature people who appreciate a good piece of drama that intermingles with comedy. I feel it is especially aimed at women who can relate to the trials and trauma of a society that pretends girls should never be sexualized, even as people constantly do so in the shadows.
There are numerous situations in our own country and culture, which we could reflect upon: child beauty pageants, children’s fashion, corporate guardianship of child entertainers, and various child reality shows. Before we throw too many stones at a foreign film-maker, we might want to keep our own hypocrisies in mind.