The title makes you think of Richard Linklater’s ‘Boyhood’ – but that takes away from the specialness of this French coming-of-age-drama which is powerfully attuned to race, solidarity and the dead ends that many kids have to be smart enough to avoid. Lonely Marieme (first-timer Karidja Touré, a remarkable find) is a 16-year-old living in the Paris suburbs. Just as an impatient careers adviser begins steering her toward vocational classes, Marieme is all but recruited by a brassy girl gang of young black dropouts, a trio of women whose straightened hairdos, leather-and-denim dress code and mouthy attitudes prove intoxicating.
Now on her third feature, 36-year-old director Céline Sciamma (‘Tomboy’, ‘Water Lillies’) is too sophisticated to create a cautionary tale about falling in with the wrong crowd. Provocatively, ‘Girlhood’ stresses Marieme’s empowerment via her new friends, even as she lunges into catfights, lures boys who never noticed her before and drifts from traditional values. If the early gang scenes seem a touch ‘West Side Story’, the film scores in a beautiful moment of sisterly abandonment when the blissed-out girls dance together to Rihanna’s ‘Diamonds’, grabbing some fantasy escape in stolen dresses and a blue-lit hotel room.
The movie jumps forward after blacked-out interludes of euphorically pounding techno music (by Para One) and you cringe at some of the developments in Marieme’s tale. Tellingly, the rechristened ‘Vic’ finds herself shortchanged not by women but by controlling men. But ‘Girlhood’ ends on an impressively unresolved note – of separation and firm-jawed determination. How can you not hope for a sequel called ‘Womanhood’?