by Gabriel Valdez
“Girlhood” opens with a football game. Despite being a French-language film, it’s American football, not soccer. Both teams are composed entirely of women. It makes no sense within the context of the film’s story. It doesn’t seem that a disadvantaged school in France would feature a women’s football program. What’s really going on?
“Girlhood” doesn’t care about your expectations, that’s what’s going on. The film, about four young women growing up, cares about its characters and it will fiercely defend them. In a movie that feels as remarkably real as this, if a football game suddenly needs to happen, or the lights go out upon a first kiss, it doesn’t matter that it’s not real. It’s real to the characters. What’s remarkable about “Girlhood” is how protective director Celine Sciamma is of their experiences.
Everything in “Girlhood” is real, until a particular feeling requires that it stop being real. What else is more accurate to the world of a child? These moments may only happen a handful of times in “Girlhood,” and they are usually understated, but they are special.
“Girlhood” is a film about safe harbor – the lack of it at home, the ways we learn to stand up for ourselves and others, the moments we step into our lives utterly alone and scared because of it, how we learn to create our own safety amid the worst of life. It presents moments where fantasy doesn’t always take place, but characters somehow always strive for fantastic ideals anyway. Sometimes they do so blindly.
After that football game, we see the group of high school-aged women walk home at night. They split into groups, fewer and fewer as they each get closer to home. Bands of men wait for them, to leer, to harass. At first, the women talk so much you can’t make out a word…but when they near the men, they all fall silent. It seems a simple thing, but Sciamma handles it with a deft hand. It’s the silence and its nature that feel overwhelming. In the face of it, hearing so much you can’t keep track becomes a comfort.
The strength of “Girlhood” is that it’s a coming-of-age film that feels experiential. It puts you in every moment, lets you inhabit it alongside its characters. The moments in between major events mean as much as the moments when something crucial is happening; they reveal how a character understands and fits into her world.
The French title of “Girlhood” is more accurately translated as “band of girls.” It may’ve been translated the way it is to take advantage of the similarity to last year’s critical favorite “Boyhood.”
I had a problem with “Boyhood” that Alessia Palanti stated better than I knew how. She wrote in her review, “After so many years the final result is dotted with formulaic plot points, cliches, a number of feel-good heteronormative Americana stereotypes, and an uninteresting family…I can see why it would capture an audience’s attention, and how its middle class, familiar, life scenarios could forge mutual understanding between film and viewer. But is this what boyhood really is? And if so, should we really be so celebratory?”
The problem with “Boyhood” wasn’t just cultural. It was the nature of it. It was nostalgic, not experiential. It didn’t feel like life as it was lived, but rather life as it was remembered. “Girlhood” feels like life as it’s lived, and it mixes in the greater fears and hopes of everyday living because of it. This is my runner-up for film of the year.