Dir: Maïmouna Doucouré; Cast: Fathia Youssouf, Médina El Aidi-Azouni, Maïmouna Gueye, Esther Gohourou, Ilanah Cami-Goursolas, Myriam Hamma, Mbissine Therese Diop, Demba Diaw. 15 cert, 96 mins
The tricky line between marketing and exploitation caused a ruckus in the case of Cuties, a wild feature debut from French-Senegalese Maïmouna Doucouré. It won the directing award at Sundance before being snapped up by Netflix. Then a poster happened to it.
This was an image cribbed from the film’s most openly provocative sequence – the finale – which, out of context, made everyone see red. It showed four pre-teen girls striking “sexy” poses on a dance stage, wearing shiny crop tops, knee pads and booty shorts.
Netflix soon apologised for the poster, and switched to a different image of this quartet pouting to camera, but the damage was done. Doucouré received death threats on social media, and a petition to have the film banned has amassed over 340,000 signatures on change.org. Sight unseen – one can only presume – the originator of the latter Mary-Whitehouse-esque screed calls the film “disgusting”, “dangerous” and made “for the viewing pleasure of paedophiles”. The Turkish broadcasting watchdog RTÜK seems to have agreed, ordering the film’s removal from Netflix in that country.
But enough of the moral panic. No one involved in demonising this film has paused at any stage – or watched it – to consider that its very subject is the disturbing, premature sexualisation of young girls in French society. Doucouré is hardly sly with her theme: by the end, she goes all out to make us squirm.
Eleven-year-old Amy (Fathia Youssouf), a Senegalese Muslim, has recently moved to a Parisian housing estate with her mother (superb Maïmouna Gueye) and two younger brothers. Her father, who we never see, is about to take a second wife, and preparations for the dreaded wedding are underway. At school, a troupe of wannabe dancers called the “mignonnes” (“cuties”) catch Amy’s attention, but she feels too square and shy to fit in – at least until she pilfers a mobile phone from her uncle, and begins using it to take selfies, beautify herself and get tips from hip-hop twerking videos.
Doucouré is blatantly pushing buttons here – never more so than in the ever-more-eye-widening dance sequences, where Amy quickly graduates from the rookie in this crew to the one schooling them in risqué, finger-biting choreography. If the pageant finale of Little Miss Sunshine often springs to mind, she functions in the story as Alan Arkin to her own Abigail Breslin.
The other girls want to pass as 14 to attract boyfriends, and with Amy’s phone, they have worrying access to everything the internet can show. Their licentiousness starts to float free of strict plausibility. Amy borrows skimpy T-shirts from her brother, swipes cash and takes them all on shopping sprees. Their make-up budget starts to look enormous. Essentially, they’re aping the gang from Céline Sciamma’s Girlhood, who were 16 going on 25. In letting this play out, Doucouré is underlining an obvious fantasy of pre-pubescence: to fast-forward towards being treated as desirable.
The film is more an experiment in chutzpah than a slice of social realism. As the girls mess about recklessly and rehearse their moves, their lack of any supervision is odd, if semi-explained by the distracted chaos of Amy’s household. But they also know how their immaturity gives them a treacherous power, as we see when a security guard tries to hustle them out for trespassing and they brand him as a child molester. These certainly aren’t your neighbourhood’s average polite children. They’re twerking terrors of the pavement.
Following some well-received shorts, Doucouré made this from a very personal place. The keenest parts explore the push/pull of her Muslim upbringing. Amy is acting out because of her father’s betrayal, and unwilling to follow her mother – who’s secretly devastated – down the path of demure submission to the patriarchy. Her rebellion is defiantly flaunting herself, and thanks to some brazen invites from the film’s camerawork, the routines she masterminds tend to make the male gaze curl up in horror.
This is powder-keg provocation in an age so terrified of child sexuality. Thanks to the furore, it has blown up just as much in Doucouré’s face. But the film’s first hour is top-notch for a debut. The child performances are electric. The range of emotion she gets from Youssouf – not just the jaw-dropping cosmetic transformations – mark her out as a magician with actors. Gang leader Angelica – quite the failure for nominative determinism, there – is played with almost Larry Clark-esque attitude by Médina El Aidi-Azouni, another brilliant find.
How Doucouré achieved her joyous last shot, I don’t quite know. Imperfect as it is, this film deserves to launch a career, not end one.
Cuties is available via Netflix now