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Girlhood (aka Bande de Filles)

Strand Releasing // Unrated // May 19, 2015
List Price: $32.99 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by Tyler Foster | posted May 30, 2015 | E-mail the Author
In its home country of France, Celine Sciamma's new film is titled Bande de Filles, an appropriate summarization of a story about a group of girls who bring another into their fold and their subsequent time together. In America, the film has been retitled Girlhood, an obvious riff on Richard Linklater's critically and commercially popular Boyhood. Yet, Girlhood (in this critic's opinion) effortlessly accomplishes in less than two hours what Boyhood struggles to do in three, capturing the exuberant, reckless energy of teenagers figuring out where they feel whole and understood. Sciamma's four young women face personal and societal struggles when they're alone, but gain carefree confidence through their friendship.

The film's protagonist is Marieme (Karidja Toure), who lives in collective of apartment complexes filled with teen gangs and drug dealers. Her mother (Binta Diop) is a janitor and often ends up working late, so Marianne often cooks for her younger sisters Bebe (Simina Soumare) and Mini (Chance N'Guessan), and does her best to avoid her older brother Djibril (Cyril Mendy), who is controlling and physically abusive. When Marieme discovers that she has failed to pass enough classes to move onto high school and will instead be directed to vocational school, it spells the end of any future she can imagine. Luckily for Marieme, she falls into the collective arms of new friends Lady (Assa Sylla), Adiatou (Lindsay Karamoh), and Fily (Marietou Toure), who invite her to come to London with them and ultimately let her join their crew. With nothing left to lose, Marieme is transformed from a shy girl who spends most of her time staring at the ground to a rebellious and fiercely loyal friend who takes chances with money, fighting, and Ismael (Idrissa Diabate), a friend of her brother's who she's had her eye on for awhile.

Although there is a story to Girlhood, the film's strengths lie in the mood that Sciamma creates around these four friends. Through mannerisms and moments, she captures the way the four young women bond with one another over stolen dresses and junk food in a swanky hotel room. In one of the film's most talked-about moments, they lipsync Rihanna's "Diamonds" together in a jubilant display of teenage intimacy. In another wonderful scene, they go miniature golfing, and each bit of their laughter, bickering, and hugging is bursting with a warm and enveloping authenticity. The score, by Jean-Baptiste de Laubier, is a propulsive backdrop for some of the film's most exhilarating and memorable moments, somehow echoing and reminding the viewer of the Rihanna song despite not containing any of the same melody. Other teen touchstones are captured with a similar panache: Marieme's first kiss in a darkened hallway is a perfect "butterflies-in-the-stomach" moment, and a later scene where she appears in Ismael's bedroom at night is incredibly vulnerable.

Although the story of the four girls would be enough to sustain the movie, Sciamma is also interested in commenting on class and racial issues. Much like the somewhat similar teenagers in Attack the Block, prudish viewers may look at the girls' shoplifting and partying as morally offensive (something I regret thinking when watching Block the first time), but most rebellion doesn't happen in a vacuum, and teenagers can be forgiven for a bit of irresponsible activity. When Marieme returns home from one of her nights out and sees her brother, he lectures her while slowly tightening a chokehold around her neck as she listens, silently. The time that Marieme spends with her friends is a refuge from bigger decisions, ones that Marieme is all too aware are right around the corner with high school off the table. At one point, Marieme gets into a brutal fight with another girl. Although true humiliation is involved, it's clear that the effort isn't Marieme wanting to hurt others, but stick up for her friends.

As the movie progresses, these sociopolitical threads slowly overtake the movie, and there's no denying the film's final stretch is far less interesting and exciting than what comes before it. It's fair to say that carefree days do come to an end, but Marieme's journey is all-too familiar, and has almost nothing to do with the bonds and support she got when she was part of her "band of girls." (One might also question whether Sciamma, who is white, has enough insight to tell the story she wants to properly.) Thankfully, Karijda Toure is a real find, a young woman who conveys a lot through silence, but remains convincing when forced to take a real stand. She has excellent chemistry with the girls, and her scenes with Bebe are some of the movie's most compassionate moments. Even when Girlhood's story is straining to say something new, she puts forth an effort that keeps the film on track, retaining the authenticity that makes its best scenes wonderful to watch.

The Blu-ray
Strand Releasing sticks to their poster as the art for Girlhood's Blu-ray release, which focuses on Vic's name necklace but crops part of her face, leaving only the emotionless line of her lips visible. The image on the reverse cover with the four girls together is far more compelling. The single-disc release comes in a standard Viva Elite Blu-ray case, and there is no insert.

The Video and Audio
The disc offers up an exceptional 2.39:1 1080p AVC image and DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 soundtrack (in French with English subtitles) that draw the viewer into the film's wonderful and energizing atmosphere. The film's synth score is propulsive and crackles with energy, and the visuals are quite intimate, mostly mid-shots and close-ups where the camera peers into the characters' eyes. Such intimacy is heightened by the excellent, natural appearance of details such as the texture of skin or fabric, and a refreshingly natural color palette free of compression artifacts or compromises. Dialogue is crisp and lively, and the "Diamonds" sequence is almost transcendent in the way the music envelops and surrounds the viewer, yet allows the girls' voices to be heard over the music.

The Extras
Sadly, the disc only comes with a single extra: a short interview with lead actress Karidja Toure (2:56, HD). This appears to have been done specifically for Strand's American disc, with Toure speaking in English about how she came to be cast, working with director Celine Sciamma, chemistry with the girls, her future in the business, and her visit to Los Angeles. A tragedy that no director or cast commentary is offered here.

Trailers for Wetlands, Cupcakes, Abuse of Weakness, and The Way He Looks are included under the special features menu as "Other Strand Trailers." An original theatrical trailer for Girlhood is also included.

Although Girlhood eventually goes somewhere that isn't nearly as interesting as where it begins (mostly because it has little to say that other films haven't already said, or observations that aren't frustratingly obvious), the good unquestionably outweighs the bad. Much of Girlhood feels alive in ways that so few films manage to capture, and those moments prevail, like a fond memory of old friends. Highly recommended.

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