Girlhood (Band of Girls)

A case study used to illuminate the intersecting restrictions race, class and gender place on young people, and for me the gender dynamics feel the most well-observed. The film starts off with a celebration of female physical prowess and solidarity on a sports field, and then contrasts that with the way the chattering girls fall silent as they walk back to their estate and encounter the boys idling outside. As usual, Sciamma's male characters are an external source of menace which the female characters have to navigate around, while still yearning for their recognition and approval. Men are black holes of attraction that are dangerous to go near.

The film makes an exception in the love interest for the main character Vic – who is pliant enough to let himself be sexualised by her, rather than the other way around. Their relationship is sweet, but it is conducted under the shadow of patriarchal assumptions, in which Vic's brother feels able to control and punish her sexual activity. At the end of the film, the boyfriend proposes marriage as a way for Vic to escape her reputation as a 'slut' and her life as a pusher for the local drug baron, which Vic is flattered by but ultimately turns down, perhaps because she sees marriage and children as another confinement and she wants to make her own way in the world. 

The film's portrayal of the girl gang Vic falls in with after dropping out of school feels almost anthropological. Its most famous scene is the girls dancing to Rihanna's 'Diamonds' – a bonding ritual that cements their friendship. Sciamma is an acute observer of the hierarchies that structure even these tight-knit groups. Lady is the alpha, but gets humiliated in a fight with another girl gang, which Vic avenges, but that then becomes a challenge to Lady's status. Lady draws in Vic by her ability to get noticed by boys, and also by gifts of clothes and a phone – huge status symbols for Vic, whose mother works a low-paying job and whose brother refuses to share the spoils from his criminal activity. Sciamma's detached stance is typical of her style, and also probably inevitable given that her personal background is very different from that of the characters in her film.

Girlhood ends with a beautiful piece of visual storytelling, in which Vic breaks down in sobs after deciding not to return to her family, and the camera keeps pushing in leaving her out of frame. Sciamma sets up the expectation that the film will end on this downbeat, but then at the last second Vic steps back into frame, with her tears gone and a determined look on her face. Despite losing everything – friends, family, boyfriend, income – the film suggests that she is resourceful enough to survive, and that we should admire her rather than simply condescend to pity her.

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