By Marshall Shaffer
Writer/director Céline Sciamma’s third feature bears the title “Bande de Filles” in its native French tongue, which translates roughly to band (or group) of girls. Yet the English release of the film gives it this name: “Girlhood.” The title seems not only ill-fitting but also begging for immediate foiling against Richard Linklater’s “Boyhood.”
Such a comparison is facile and does a disservice to Sciamma’s wonderfully observed film. She does not aim to provide a wide-ranging snapshot of female youth. “Girlhood” is less about one girl, be she specific or a stand-in for all women, and more about gendered group dynamics filtered through the experience of the protagonist, Marieme (Karidja Touré). Sciamma’s work does resemble many other great films, however.
“Girlhood” recalls Tina Fey’s insightful script for “Mean Girls,” which also focuses on a troublemaking quartet of girls. Both depict the ways in which either one person can set the tone for an entire group – or a paralysis of groupthink can conduct the unit. Perhaps the most memorable scene in “Girlhood,” save a lip-sync rendition of “Diamonds” by Rhianna, occurs when the clique encounters a former member who was exiled when she became pregnant. Group identity is everything for these adolescent girls, until it is nothing.
“Girlhood” recalls Catherine Hardwicke’s hard-hitting “Thirteen,” an intense drama that follows two taboo-shattering teen girls down a rabbit hole of drug abuse and promiscuity. Admittedly, this connection is more superficial. Sciamma shows her main characters committing some questionable acts, but they do not necessarily define them as people.
“Girlhood” recalls Andrea Arnold’s underseen masterpiece “Fish Tank,” a portrait of frustrated working-class adolescence scarcely documented on screen. Sciamma’s subjects clearly dream of an opulent lifestyle, yet such conditions feel like an unattainable fantasy. As an added bonus, both films feature girls using dance as a means for expressing and then dealing with their internal torments.
“Girlhood” recalls Emma Roberts’ April from Gia Coppola’s “Palo Alto.” Both April and Marieme have a tendency to gaze, longingly and wistfully, into space. Without the benefits of ensconced socioeconomic privilege, though, Marieme’s pining looks feel more devastating and less angsty.
“Girlhood” recalls Dee Rees’ “Pariah,” just without the main plot of lesbianism. Sciamma looks at the cumulative societal disadvantages earned from being not only a female but also a person of color. Strikingly, she includes an episode all too familiar to many in America: an unwelcome tail from a retail employee assuming that Marieme is attempting to steal some of their merchandise.
“Girlhood” recalls Lee Daniels’ “Precious,” another film that does not shy away from, nor sugarcoat, the real issues facing young women in society. From teen pregnancy to rape culture, no holds are barred. Pain becomes a requisite component for the audience to experience the true scope of their existence.
But above all, and in spite of its title, “Girlhood” is about the means of surviving and getting by in a man’s world. Seeing how much males, both well-meaning and predatory, define their life experiences proves rather disheartening. The message comes across quickly and clearly, which does lead to the last 30 minutes of the film feeling a tad bit superfluous. Still, Céline Sciamma has crafted a film that is worth both seeing and discussing.
When I spent last fall in London, I often found myself wandering the halls of art museums (largely since they boasted free admission). Quite often, I would walk past a painting on the wall without giving it much thought, admiring its remarkable craft but feeling rather unmoved emotionally. One painter whose work struck me on a deep and profound level, though, was J.M.W. Turner, whose work with light and shadow predated the renowned Impressionist movement.
I was hoping that Mike Leigh’s “Mr. Turner,” a film who places J.M.W. Turner in the subject position, would stir me similarly. Unfortunately, I can’t really say that I felt the same pull to Leigh’s film as I do to Turner’s paintings. But simply because I did not respond deeply to it does not mean the work is entirely void of merit. I simply appreciate it more than I like or enjoy it.
With the exception of 2011’s “Another Year,” I seem to be rather immune to being swept away of Mike Leigh’s uniquely derived products. (For those who don’t know, Leigh formulates his screenplay in tandem with the efforts of his actors in a lengthy, laborious rehearsal process.) The characters all seem well-formed, and the dialogue always feels quite natural. It just never feels exciting to watch.
In a sense, though, that’s kind of the point. “Mr. Turner” is a biopic in the sense that it covers the life of J.M.W. Turner, but Leigh resists all the clichés and conventions we are normally conditioned to expect from a movie about a true-life creative mind. Turner has no flashes of mad inspiration, nor does every word he utters ring with capital-I “importance.” In fact, we rarely get to see his creative process at all.
Leigh uses “Mr. Turner” not to show how his subject is extraordinary, but rather the many ways in which he is ordinary. It’s a biopic hiding inside an ensemble drama where Turner happens to have the most screen time. Timothy Spall, a consummate character actor perhaps best known for his turn as Peter Pettigrew in the “Harry Potter” series, certainly makes the most of the attention given his grimacing genius Turner. It’s a physically committed, emotionally potent performance that gives him a much-deserved moment in the spotlight.
Spall gets just as much of a chance to play Turner as an everyman than he does to play him as an artist. We witness his creative madness at the Academy, greeted with predictable derision, with the same frequency that we observe his curious relationships with household maid Hannah Danby (Dorothy Atkinson) and seaside landlady Sophia Booth (Marion Bailey). Though played with the same understated veracity of a character actor, Spall’s Turner is clearly very human.
Leigh matches Spall’s tempo (or perhaps it’s the other way around) by leisurely strolling through Turner’s life. The deliberate, though often languid, pacing feels appropriate for “Mr. Turner.” He avoids the trappings of stodgy, stuffy costume dramas by injecting the perfect amount of wit at the right time. Most of his humor is employed to poke fun at the pretentiousness of the art community and the short-sightedness of its patrons, who sneered at Turner’s late masterpieces by saying that he “takes leave of form altogether.”
It’s tempting to draw a parallel between Leigh and Turner as artists in light of that last quote, but I’d stop short of saying “Mr. Turner” is as brilliantly iconoclastic as Turner’s revolutionary paintings. Leigh does a nice job creating a portrait consisting of unique brushstrokes. While it might not be breathtaking, it is certainly intriguing in its own quiet, unassuming way.
Both of these films open Friday at a/perture cinema downtown. You can find showtimes and tickets HERE.
Marshall Shaffer is a senior at Wake Forest University specializing in film and media studies. He has been writing film reviews and other cinematic commentary on his blog Marshall and the Movies since 2009, and his work has also been syndicated on The Christian Science-Monitor. He keeps going through it because he needs the eggs. You can read more of his reviews HERE.