Director: Maïmouna Doucouré
Cast: Fathia Youssouf
Category: World Cinema Dramatic Competition
The term “woman” is used a lot in French filmmaker Maïmouna Doucouré’s energetic coming-of-age and turning-of-page drama, Cuties. 11-year-old Senegalese tween Amy Diop (a hypnotic Fathia Youssouf) is sick of the term. She thought she wouldn’t hear it again after leaving her country. “You are a woman now,” her mother proudly declares when she sees the bloodstain on Amy’s pants. Amy overhears her mother discovering that her Muslim-African father – a man who is never seen but whose shadow looms large over the film – is set to marry a second woman. Her mother’s aunt, a God-fearing immigrant in France whose house they have moved into, teaches Amy how to be an obedient woman by making her cook for the upcoming wedding. The poisonous promise of premature womanhood is everywhere.
When Amy notices a free-spirited all-girl dance troupe in her new school, Cuties promises to become the quintessential dance movie. It has all the ingredients: A shy girl searching for a better meaning of womanhood, a rowdy and infectious gang of mean-girl dancers, an upcoming competition, a rival group, viral videos and, of course, the blooming of life-altering friendships. We’ve seen it a million times – dance as a means of expression, dance as an escape and cure. Even more so when the child actors are so charming and natural, making for the kind of clumsily precocious moments (condom balloons, porn theories, twerk videos) that several mechanically directed feature debuts fail to capture.
But here’s where Cuties distinguishes itself from the easy pretenders. It uses all the aforementioned tropes to lull us into the hyperactive Florida Project-esque world of ghetto swag. Director Maïmouna Doucouré’s uncanny understanding of adolescence employs her film’s conformist body to test cinema’s age-old perception of breaking free. If Amy was perhaps a messy teenager, her underdog-ness might have earned her a clean resolution in which she dances happily ever after. But puberty can be awkward, ugly and confusing: it’s neither as innocent as a children’s film nor as flimsy as a high-school musical. Doucouré depicts Amy as a girl whose complex circumstances – combined with the pitfalls of modern-day technology – distort not only her sense of identity but also her sense of looking for a new one. In her head, she’s still the leg-shaking version of The Karate Kid. But Amy instead battles one extreme with another: She overcompensates for an oppressive mom-and-pop brand of womanhood by embracing pop-culture’s fetishized and sexualized version of it. There’s no midway for her. Her rebellion is as misinformed as the traditionalism that triggers the rebellion.
But here’s where Cuties distinguishes itself from the easy pretenders. It uses all the aforementioned tropes to lull us into the hyperactive Florida Project-esque world of ghetto swag. Director Maïmouna Doucouré’s uncanny understanding of adolescence employs her film’s conformist body to test cinema’s age-old perception of breaking free.
Slowly but disturbingly, it dawns upon us that Amy’s desire to dance has nothing to do with her desire to fit in or break free – it’s a desperate, devastating reaction to identify a coming-of-rage that doesn’t quite exist. Even when she is “exorcised” of her sins in a mosque, she shakes violently in the language of a tortured twerker rather than an embattled spirit. When her troupe rejects her, Amy’s tears are loud and obsessive, more befitting of a jilted lover than a passionate artist. The gyrating, twerking, grinding, pouting and sauciness are emergency flares trying to light up a dark sky, not disco-lit celebrations of fresh flair. By eschewing the narrative of conventional triumph, Doucouré highlights the unseen pressures of displacement in the age of broadening borders. Most storytellers, not unlike Amy, react in extremes: They respond to racism and bigotry by crafting unreal and delusionally optimistic fairytales of choreographed victory. Cuties keeps it real and oddly disarming, even in the face of formulaic hip-hop joyousness.
Perhaps the best tribute to Maïmouna Doucouré’s deceptively shrewd storytelling was the arc of audience reactions during the film’s world premiere. The first viewers of Cuties spent most of the screening chuckling at and indulging the kids’ irreverent body language. Not because it was funny, but because of the years of emotional conditioning by harmless children-acting-like-adult narratives. I looked around and wondered if this was the reason those ghastly child beauty pageants are such an all-American thing. To her credit, Doucouré doesn’t shy away from objectifying the girls’ physicalities, almost as if she were deliberately trying to reflect the general gaze in the hope of procuring an epiphany. And that epiphany comes. The sighs turn into gasps. Once Amy goes full Beyonce, there were winces of uneasiness. The shock creeps up on unsuspecting viewers, almost as if the anticipation of the climactic dance competition had fooled everyone into overlooking their own awry moral compass. One could almost hear the bewilderment: Should we cheer Amy on to defy her family or should we be the unpopular fuddy-duddies who object to the indecent liberalism of her…moves? The difficult answer is why Cuties strips away all the right inhibitions. And, in the process, reveals an unfilmed, underrated truth: Sometimes, being ordinary is the only way to be extraordinary.