Céline Sciamma’s pained, thrilling, observational tale of growing up broke and black in slab-like Paris flats is no rebuke to Boyhood, but its besties-dancing-to-Rihanna rhapsody eats the lunch of that bit where Richard Linklater has Ethan Hawke drone on about Wings. They sing, “We’re beautiful like diamonds in the sky!” Raw and insistent, bold and brawling, Girlhood throbs with the global now, illustrating the ways an indifferent society boxes in the people who grow up in project-style boxes. Superb newcomer Karidja Touré stars as 16-year-old Marieme, a somewhat listless student, just about to flunk out of school, but a pretty good big sister. She’s quick to laugh and dish advice about handling the onset of puberty: Wear baggier shirts.
But Marieme isn’t certain who she is, really, until she’s invited to hang out with three other young women, looking badass in leather jackets and straightened hair. Soon, Marieme flourishes by imitating the street-tough ways of group leader Lady (Assa Sylla), a rowdy beauty who lives for shouting down rival ganglets — and for the occasional organized fistfight with an enemy.
The film’s French title is the stronger Bande de Filles, which might seem a better fit for Girlhood’s first two-thirds. With empathy but no condescension, Sciamma shows us Marieme’s tentative acceptance into the group and her first stirrings of confidence. But the film is most powerful when simply eyeing the friendship. The girls shake down enough money from schoolkids to rent a hotel room for a night, and there they dance and sing and bathe and laugh. The laughter is a boundless, hilarious gush, a sort of shell they share, much like the music they blare and boogie to on an otherwise silent train car: It’s kids with almost nothing, claiming a space that’s purely, beautifully their own.
Marieme thrives in the world shared by her friends, but that’s not much help in thriving in real life. Sciamma risks the goodwill of her audience by keeping the film going for quite a while after Marieme grows apart from the gang and tries to shake free from the world itself something like the respect and security she found in that laughter. Marieme leaves behind the girlish fun and petty crime for a more dangerous street life. This material gains in purpose and urgency as it goes, and this is where the film earns its title: Without the friends to blend with, to learn from, to lead, Marieme finds that she’s a woman — and that she’s not ready to be all the things the world expects of one. The conclusion, a heartbreaker, reflects that early scene where, giggling madly, she advises a sister to hide her breasts. With so few opportunities afforded a woman of her background and education, she seeks to hide what she has become — and to take refuge in that lost girlhood. The movie is an empathetic triumph.