There is a particularly disturbing moment in Maïmouna Doucouré Cuties— a compelling coming of age drama enclosing the discomfort young girls experience while navigating the ambiguity of pre teenage — when the protagonist Amy gets into a scuffle with another girl in her school. They are both from rival dancing groups and in a matter of seconds Amy is pinned to the ground in front of a gathering crowd. But the intended humiliation is complete only when the girl pulls down Amy’s tight leather pants to reveal her panty. Filled with cartoon-ish prints, it stands in stark contrast to the sexy red crop top and pants she dons. This instance of a stark dissonance between what an 11-year-old wears inside and chooses to hide as opposed to what she wears outside and seeks to be seen in is what encapsulates the essence of Doucouré’s debut feature outing.
Centered on Senegalese immigrant Amy (Fathia Youssouf), the new kid on the block in a Parisian neighbourhood, and her group of school friends, Cuties is a rare film that draws its characters from an age which often evades cinematic exploration. Positioned at the precipice of teenage, they are old enough to no longer be considered as children and still young enough to be disillusioned about adulthood. It is a difficult time when the mind is in conflict with the body and the self with everyone else. Doucouré (who has also written the film) captures this messiness and dubiousness with touching empathy, underscoring its embedded impatience in an instance when the girls brazenly flirt with older boys by lying about their age. Later, in a standout scene, she distills their naivete and offsets crude precociousness with affecting innocence when one of the girls finds a discarded condom and mistaking it for a balloon, blows it to make a saucy grown-up joke. As a hilarious aftermath, the rest scream out of fright and later painstakingly scrub her mouth dreading she would die otherwise.
These are girls on the verge of becoming but in their haste they pretend to have become someone they think they ought to be. What sets Cuties apart is Doucouré placing this quest in the age of social media and questioning their lack of representation by showcasing the ills of misrepresentation. To be more like grown-ups, they constantly imitate who they see on the screen down to the way they dress and on being offended when referred to as kids. Their collective passion for dancing is more a form of emulation than self-expression. Even the name of their troupe, an aflated ‘Cuties’ screams for validation. Their appearances are hypersexualised because posited in a time of fleeting attention, they want the likes to feel they are liked. This is the virtual dictating the real and in an essay on Washington Post, Doucouré disclosed that her own shock on seeing 11-year-olds “dressed and dancing in a very risque way” in Paris sowed the germ of the film.
Even though crafted as a commentary on the premature sexualisation of children, Cuties, I suspect, mostly reflects Doucouré’s apprehension towards a trend whose end is nowhere in sight and which assumes menacing consequences when seen in a larger context. This is evidenced by pivoting the film on Amy’s journey, an immigrant for whom the path to self -discovery is intricately linked to social acceptance, and the idea of imitation hinges on a perception of emancipation. Seeing her mother wordlessly put up with her father’s polygamy, Amy’s revulsion towards her is palpable and leaks into everything the former represents. On the contrary, her fixation with the girls in school, exhibiting a flamboyant liberation grows steadily. Doucouré illustrates this aspiration with the hopefulness of an infatuation without a speck of scepticism as Amy follows them around like a besotted lover.
In the protagonist’s desire to be more like them and less like her mother, she wills hard to please her friends and tries harder to belong. It is she who teaches the rest to twerk, stick their tongue out (going full Miley Cyrus) from the videos floating online. And in a terrifying moment, when told by her friend that people were referring to them as little kids after the aforementioned video went viral Amy gives into a lapse of judgement. In a telling follow up scene, her friends snap ties accusing her of crossing a line. It is this imaginary line — separating pre teenage from adulthood— that the film preoccupies itself with and stresses on its increasing disappearance by invoking its presence. But it mostly showcases the difficulty to discern it more so for those who exist in the real world by escaping from it. For someone like Amy, the line is more of an obstacle and being part of the group a signal of ultimate validation. And yet, boundaries of this new found freedom collapses on her in the film’s climactic dance competition when the disgust laden shock on the audience’s faces reveal her own fallacy to herself. For once looking at faces beyond her screen invalidates her.
It might seem that Cuties is an indictment of adolescents and on their addiction to social media, a censure against a generation whose stories expire in a day and memories are recycled to evoke remembrance. But Doucouré’s refusal to go soft on her approach reveals a different story. She is not rebuking those who are trying to please but those who derive pleasure. This is her scathing critique of a culture that homogenises everything as content and refuses to make space for an age that is often marked with discontent. She goes all out objectifying young girls because for once an adolescent story inhabits their gaze. For once their confusion is not viewed as disobedience and rebellion as transgression. For once a film shows the adults what they consume and not what they are comfortable dissecting.
By portraying such an unsanitised picture, she is holding those responsible who have normalised and sanctioned hypersexualisation of children by consuming those very content in the guise of harmless entertainment. If Amy sees the faces behind the “views” at the dance competition, the viewers too look at the only speck of reality in the virtual world: the children. The abhorrence writ large on their countenances is them revolting from what they themselves have nourished. Bereft of the comfort of their phones, they recoil. In a way, the recent controversy of cancelling Cuties on the very ground that the film tries to make —premature sexualisation of children — corroborates this reading. This time the audience is bigger and so is the screen but the feeling of unsettlement is shared. It is almost akin to what Amy might have felt during the brawl–visceral discomfort on being seen.
Cuties is streaming on Netflix
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