Cuties (2020)

Cuties poster.jpgDirector: Maïmouna Doucouré
Running Time: 96 Minutes
Certification: 15
Starring: Fathia Youssouf, Médina El Aidi-Azouni, Maïmouna Gueye, Esther Gohourou, Ilanah Cami-Goursolas, Myriam Hamma, Mbissine Therese Diop, Demba Diaw, Mamadou Samaké

As the saying goes, it takes a lifetime to build a good reputation, but you can lose it in a minute. This feature debut by Maïmouna Doucouré is a perfect example of that. Back in January 2020, this film premiered to much acclaim at the Sundance Film Festival, with Doucouré winning the Directing Award. Months later, it would all be overshadowed thanks a baffling move by Netflix, the films international distributor. They released marketing material which severely misrepresented the film, and as a result, many who haven't seen the film accused it of sexualizing the underage stars. It's difficult to discuss this film without mentioning the controversy it's garnered, which casts a long shadow. After viewing the ensuing 96 minutes, it feels undeserved, and misses the films point.

Amy (Fathia Youssouf) is dissatisfied with her home-life, and her families traditional upbringings. The inciting factor is her fathers imminent return, bringing with him a second wife, to the distress of Amy's mother. Amy finds solace within a dance crew, who are a contrast to her mother's religious beliefs. They all wish to be seen as mature, so enact in behaviour they see as acceptable, and consider normal.

Based on her own experiences, writer and director Maïmouna Doucouré crafts a criticism of the what young girls face today. The prevalence of social media makes the hypersexualization of young girls seem normal, and the effects are explored well here. We see them watching a dance video, which ends with nudity displayed. Afterwards, Amy responds about how many likes the video received. These 11 year old girls believe this is how they prove their maturity, through utilising sexuality, no matter how drastic the lengths. It's a rightfully uncomfortable watch, and the film never lets you forget that these girls are wrong. You're constantly reminded how young these girls are, and what they're doing should never be normalised or considered acceptable. It's a compelling antithesis to shows like Dance Moms, and offers the most interesting parts of the film.

What drives Amy to this life is her troubled home life, as she's clearly affected by her polygamist father's second marriage, and how it's affected her mother. These intricacies make for interesting plot points, but they can't shake the feeling we've seen this all done better. The "troubled home life leads to youth rebelling" is a familiar trope, and in this particular instance, brings to mind Céline Sciamma's masterful film, Girlhood. It's one thing to see our lead venture further into this group of girls, as they pick fights and engage in dastardly behaviour, but having a bonding scene bathed in blue light feels far too familiar.

The decision to focus on Amy feels understandable, as we see the effects social media has on her views, deftly captured by Fathia Youssouf. It's also a double-edged sword, as the focus feels a bit limited, and more time would've been welcome for other characters. Take her mother and auntie, for instance. Through what time they have on-screen, we see the ways they've internalised and accepted the misogyny in their lives, making for tragic and compelling viewing. What would've been welcome is more time shared with Amy, to sell their relationships and how it affects her own journey. As it stands, the route it takes to the end feels abrupt, with certain aspects smoothed over. In spite of that, we're left with an impressive debut with something important to say.