The awkward transition from childhood into sexually self-aware adolescence is navigated at reckless speed by the young protagonist of Cuties. Writer-director Maïmouna Doucouré’s captivating but structurally shaky first feature is stronger on setup than development or payoff, becoming less controlled as its opposing forces of tradition and rebellion collide. But as 11-year-old Amy, Fathia Youssouf provides a disarmingly tender center to this drama about the child of a Senegalese family anxious to escape troubles at home and find peer acceptance by joining a mean-girl dance clique at her French middle school.
Following its Sundance premiere, the French production will be released in spring by Netflix, where it might benefit from proximity to Mati Diop’s beguiling fusion of social realism with the supernatural, Atlantics. However, the film Cuties most recalls is American director Anna Rose Holmer’s The Fits, which told a similar, though far more abstract story of a tween girl awakening into young womanhood via the alluring power of physical movement.
Dance dance revolution, with blowback.
Amy has just moved with her mother, Mariam (Maïmouna Gueye), and two younger brothers into a new apartment; her questions about when their father will return to them from Senegal receive only vague answers. She gradually learns, however, that he will be bringing a second wife to occupy the lavishly appointed master bedroom kept under lock and key. Pressured by the family’s old-school Aunty (Mbissine Thérèse Diop), Mariam has agreed to share their home and celebrate the wedding, putting on a brave face while literally beating herself up for a marital demotion she sees as her own personal failing.
Her mother’s desolation — at odds with the teachings of Muslim community prayer meetings where wives vow to obey their husbands — does nothing to help Amy map her own path to womanhood. Instead, she’s mesmerized as she watches her spirited neighbor Angelica (Médina El Aidi-Azouni) dancing with sultry self-possession in the building’s laundry, dressed in a skimpy crop top and skintight leatherette pants.
Amy is drawn to Angelica and her posse of fellow dance enthusiasts from school, Coumba (Esther Gohourou), Jess (Ilanah Cami-Goursolas) and Yasmine (Myriam Hamma), collectively known as “The Cuties.” The outsider is visibly delighted by their exuberant fashion sense, sassy attitudes and dynamic moves. At first, they treat her with bullying scorn, but Amy won’t be deterred, gaining tentative admission to their circle through Angelica.
In the meantime, she steals the cell phone of her cousin (Mamadou Samake) and gets an addictive first taste of social media and YouTube, studying videos of older women’s provocative twerking moves and then practicing her own version of them alone in the bathroom. When an altercation leads to Yasmine being shut out of the group, Amy is ready to step in, spicing up their routine as they prepare for tryouts in a local dance contest.
Doucouré establishes intriguing juxtapositions as she deftly sets the wheels of inevitable conflict in motion. The brightly colored but matronly gown sent from Senegal for Amy to wear to her father’s second wedding stands as a rebuke to her as she amusingly repurposes her kid brother’s undersized T-shirt as a crop top and trades her soccer-mom jeans for cutoffs. There’s also real poignancy in Mariam’s sorrow that plays in counterpoint to Amy’s secret emancipation.
But as Amy gets closer to the dance contest, falling in and out of favor with the other girls, the storytelling becomes less fluid. Even the frequent shots of energy injected via dance montages start to feel like padding as the plot momentum falters. The director is working mostly in a naturalistic vein and her occasional stylistic flourishes of magic realism don’t always feel organic.
The bigger issue is that once the film establishes its critical view of a culture that steers impressionable young girls toward the hypersexualization of their bodies, it sets up a clash against traditional values that should provide a sturdy third act — particularly given the rich contextual potential to explore African identity in a Western European country. The elements are put in place, from Amy’s defiance, dishonesty and ruthless determination to participate in the contest at any price, to Aunty’s glowering condemnation and Mariam’s emotional crossroads as the wedding approaches. But Doucouré doesn’t quite thread those strands into a satisfying conclusion.
There nonetheless are plenty of reasons to keep watching, from the vibrancy of the visuals to the youthful vitality of the preteen actors and the feverish excitability with which the movie captures young female friendship. There’s especially engaging work from the magnetic Youssouf as Amy and from El Aidi-Azouni, who gives bespectacled Angelica a spiky authority softened by an occasional touch of sweetness. But although the closing shots of Amy in more modest Western clothing jumping rope with other girls from her father’s wedding party are lovely, they largely bypass the real drama and go directly to an unearned and disappointingly facile image of empowered resilience.
Venue: Sundance Film Festival (World Cinema Dramatic Competition)
Production companies: Bien ou Bien Productions, in association with France 3 Cinema
Cast: Fathia Youssouf, Médina El Aidi-Azouni, Esther Gohourou, Ilanah Cami-Goursolas, Myriam Hamma, Maïmouna Gueye, Mbissine Thérèse Diop, Demba Diaw, Mamadou Samake
Director-screenwriter: Maïmouna Doucouré
Director of photography: Yann Maritaud
Production designer: Julie Wassef
Music: Niko Noki
Editors: Stéphane Mazalaigue, Mathilde Van De Moortel
Casting: Tania Arana