It would take more than the space of one movie review to discuss all the ways that girls and women are pressured, tossed around, dismissed, or undervalued in communities, societies, and cultures around the world. Patriarchy is built into everything—into religion, into capitalism—and easy to internalize, and it speaks the language of obedience. Lash out against that or stand up to it, and risk ostracization or punishment; acquiesce to it, and potentially lose your sense of self. Suffice to say that growing up is hard to do, and Maïmouna Doucouré’s debut film Cuties thoughtfully depicts the difficulty of being young and alone. Netflix’s misguided initial marketing for the film, in fact, mimicked the very societal problems Cuties is criticizing: the perils involved in mistaking provocation for maturity.
Cuties follows 11-year-old Aminata (Fathia Youssouf), with the Anglicized nickname Amy, who is struggling to adjust to her new life in France after leaving Senegal. She lives in an apartment in a housing project with her mother Mariam (Maïmouna Gueye), her younger brother Ismael (Demba Diaw), and another baby brother. Her outfits are hand-me-downs, an oversized hoody sweatshirt and baggy jeans. She has no cell phone, no Internet at home, no means to connect with the outside world. At school, she hangs on the fringes, and doesn’t have any friends. At the mosque where she and her mother go to pray, she is openly jealous of the younger children who play on the outskirts of the group, who don’t have to cover their hair with headscarves, who can ignore the lecture from mosque elder Auntie (Mbissine Therese Diop) about “why women must be pious” and how they should “strive to preserve our decency” and stay away from the “bodies of uncovered women.”
Amy shrinks away from Auntie, intimidated not only by the woman’s sternness but by what she represents: unquestioning subservience. Instead, Amy is increasingly drawn to a group of rebellious classmates who call themselves the Cuties. Led by Amy’s neighbor Angelica (Médina El Aidi-Azouni), the group are proto-“bad girls,” and act far older than their 11 years. They dress skimpily, with midriffs revealed and legs out. They quarrel with teachers and authority figures. They flirt with older boys, and get annoyed when they’re dismissed as “little girls.” They’re both loyal to and cruel with each other, and in Amy, they have little interest in her outside of her status as a bullying subject. They nickname her “Homeless.” They criticize the flatness of her body. They throw rocks at her. And yet Amy keeps coming back to them and starts acting like them, dressing in her little brother’s too-small clothes and stealing her cousin’s cellphone.
Once Amy’s friendship with Angelica and her Instagram account are both established, Cuties shifts into the content that so many people critical of the film have lambasted as inappropriate: The girls aspire to win a local dance competition, and start copying moves they see online in music videos and YouTube performances. They twerk, they hump, they writhe, they put their fingers in their mouths and their hands on their crotches. Doucouré presents some of these scenes in slow motion, lingering on the performative aspect of the girls’ dancing—and making clear the disconnect between how these girls think they should be acting to be taken seriously, and how we as audiences react to this.
Cuties, in depicting girls acting in ways that make us uncomfortable, is purposeful in that presentation. The entire point of this is to demonstrate how the girls are, bereft of other role models, desperate to act older as a way of exerting some control over their own lives. They are very aware of what they’re doing—in one scene, to avoid getting into trouble, the girls accuse security guards of sexualizing and molesting them—but unaware of the ramifications of that behavior. They don’t really understand what condoms are. They don’t fully grasp the difference between themselves and a group they consider their rivals, the Sweety-Swaggs; those young adults don’t even realize the Cuties exist. So much of what the Cuties are going through is shaped by outside forces, and by the artifice inherent in how we live today—screens, social media, video chats. Think of Thirteen or Rocks or Fish Tank or Eighth Grade: Those films too focused on the way society encourages girls to grow up and then humiliates them when they don’t do it “right,” and that is the impossible balance Cuties is urging us to consider.
Given those other films, Cuties is familiar, and the narrative is told in a primarily reactive way. Amy is so often mirroring what she sees online that we don’t have a strong sense of who she was before crossing paths with Angelica: Was she already pulling away from Islam? What was her relationship with her mother like before a change in the family dynamic that rattles both Mariam and Amy? Cuties is so focused on showing us the way that Amy changes that it doesn’t spend as much time establishing who she was before, and there is a particular twist in the narrative that seems inserted for shock value more than anything else. But the predictability of the plot is made up for by the performances of Youssouf, Gueye, and El Aidi-Azouni, who are the film’s standouts. Youssouf and El Aidi-Azouni in particular communicate well the burning-hot intensity of youthful emotion, from burning disappointment to screaming delight. They believably bounce between extremes, which is in contrast to Gueye, who provides a needed steadiness for the story. Mariam is a woman whose life has gone in an entirely different direction from what she anticipated, who is tasked with adapting fully to a new place and new customs because her family and her community expect it, and Gueye conveys quiet strength. Mariam may be in just as much pain as Amy, but she doesn’t have the same opportunity for rebellion. The time for that has passed, and when Mariam tells Amy “You take up too much space,” you wonder who might have said that to her first—and perhaps without the joking tone.
While watching Cuties, I thought back to 15 or so years ago, when my 8-year-old cousin proudly asked if she could show me something, and I sat down to a performance of the Pussycat Dolls’s “Buttons.” My little MTV-obsessed cousin knew all the words to the song and all the dance moves from the music video, and she was excited to show them off to me—unaware of the discomfort I felt from watching a child sing the lyrics of a highly sexualized song and perform the dance moves popularized by a group of burlesque performers-turned-pop stars. But my cousin wasn’t really aware of all that. She had practiced the whole thing over and over, and she was pleased to stick the performance, and she wanted my approval. “They like me a lot, but they think I’m crazy,” Angelica says of their classmates to Amy as a way of explaining her behavior, her acting out, her desire for attention and praise. Cuties shows us the vulnerability of that yearning, and asks for our understanding instead of our judgment.
Cuties is streaming on Netflix as of Sept. 9, 2020.
Image sources (in order of posting): Netflix, Netflix Media Center