Director: Maïmouna Doucouré
Stars: Fathia Youssouf Abdillahi, Médina El Aidi-Azouni, Esther Gohourou
Thanks to a significantly damaging and thoughtless marketing snafu, the reputation of Maïmouna Doucouré’s Mignonnes (Cuties to English-speaking countries) has been contorted beyond her control. One overtly sexualised poster of it’s child stars later and the film has courted the kind of blind ire so often stoked by sensationalist media outlets desperate for fresh clicks. It’s depressing, as the film itself is, ironically, a comment on such trends in our society and not an endorsement of the same.
The youngest in a devoutly religious family, 11 year-old Amy (Fathia Youssouf Abdillahi) adheres to her mother’s wishes when it comes to how she dresses. Nothing too revealing, nothing too tight. Such requests aren’t entirely unjustified for a girl her age, but Amy begrudges the restrictions, envious of the girls her age at school who live more leniently.
It is exactly because of the aura of repression at home that Amy yearns to act out, idolising free-spirited neighbourhood girl Angelica (Médina El Aidi-Azouni), who is part of a wannabe dance group. Amy spies on them as they practice down in the nearby train yard. They catch her watching them. Gradually, Amy is brought into the fold, but at the same time her eagerness to push boundaries steers the girls into more sexually suggestive moves. They emulate the things they see in popular culture. YouTube videos of women – only a little older than themselves – grinding and writhing to propulsive Reggaeton tunes.
It is this angle of the film that many have assumed is riotously distasteful, but most of these decisions have likely been made without seeing the film. Doucouré’s context is, actually, rather conservative itself. While she captures the precociousness of youth with some of the skill seen in the work of her fellow countrywoman Céline Sciamma (Water Lilies, Tomboy), she also lenses her film from a position of concern. While quick to condemn the patriarchal stronghold of organised religion, she isn’t exactly celebrating boundless emancipation. Rather, Cuties suggests that the world away from religious doctrine is just as suffocating.
These young women have been conditioned to aspire to a skewed definition of their own sexuality. It’s wrapped around the songs they listen to, the Instagram stars they idolise. Doucouré’s film can be read as bullishly opposed to this, making the (reasonable) argument that young women are exposed to these things too young, and that this is as much a calculated indoctrination as that of Islam or Christianity. That, in effect, you’re damned if you do, damned if you don’t. The twin patriarchies of religion and capitalism want women to aspire to either be madonnas or whores. Amy is wrenched from pillar to post. A reduction of choice both toxic and stifling.
Whatever the position taken, Doucouré captures universal truisms about being young and rebellious. Kids are naturally curious about the things adults want to protect them from. Part of growing up and evolving is testing these boundaries, regardless of whether that’s wise or not. It’s part of how we learn and define ourselves.
Still, it’s easy to see how certain scenes here could be misconstrued. When Amy first films her friends dancing, Doucouré’s camera wanders over their bodies as they flex and move. See also a solo show that Amy puts on to impress Angelica in the privacy of their shared laundry room. The camera may ogle these kids, but it does so from the perspective of the characters in these scenes. In the former, Amy is spellbound by the dancing of her new friends. In the latter, there’s a more personal sense of reciprocal admiration. Things get a little more problematic later on, when all four of them dance together on an overpass. Again the girls perform for the camera in the scene, but we also go in for closer shots that don’t adhere to the film’s vérité style. It may be an attempt from Doucouré to ape similar flourishes in Sciamma’s work (Girlhood especially). It doesn’t quite work in this instance.
Nevertheless, Cuties is not the raucous or inflammatory film it has been made out to be. In the main this is a well-made slice of social realism that discusses a specific and psychologically complex aspect of adolescence. That the approach and execution is occasionally awkward is fitting; these are the difficult years we all went through growing up. A few tonal missteps aside this is still a comparatively strong feature debut, with little to get genuinely hysterical about. Rather, Doucouré shows a good deal of promise; promise almost certainly hampered thanks to its distributor’s catastrophic clumsiness. At the time of writing, it sits on imdb with an average viewer score of 1.9 out of 10. That’s ridiculous, and indicative of a culture that blindly and unwisely does as it’s been indoctrinated to. Sound familiar?