After putting the finishing touches on hand-cut, homemade arts and crafts project for her mother, 11-year-old Amy (Fathia Youssouf), and her younger brother, start arguing over who gets the bigger bedroom of their new apartment. They are told that the room is not for either of them. It is never explained why; at least, not directly to the children.
Maïmouna Doucouré’s “Cuties,” which was acquired by Netflix ahead of its Sundance debut, is a vibrant portrait of self discovery, a realist exercise in expressive empathy that doubles as a cautionary tale on the dangers of vanity. It’s a radically different spin on a coming-of-age narrative like Amazon’s “Troop Zero,” only from the kids-who-want-to-be-cool’s perspectives, rather than the picked-on outcasts, which might be less interesting were it not for the extreme difference in social economy, ethnic upbringing, and Doucouré’s raw and intricate eye as a filmmaker.
Amy is the kind of girl who tries so hard to fit in, she sometimes ends up alienating herself further by extension. Her family has recently arrived in Paris from Senegal and she lives a fairly conversative life, praying to Allah and partaking in group prayer with the rest of her community, repeatedly reminded of her pious duties and lectured on taboo behavior. One day, Amy spots one of her neighbors, Angelica, twerking her heart out in the laundry room, sporting a crop top and leather pants while ironing her hair. Amy’s eyes go wide.
Angelica is the head of a schoolyard dance clique, who have dubbed themselves the “Cuties.” After witnessing a frozen flash mob, Amy instantly becomes enamored with their behavior, enviously following the girls to watch them practice by the train tracks, shooting videos on their phones to upload for Instagram views. But Amy is too poor to afford a cell phone, and her family would never allow one anyway. When an opportunity presents itself, Amy swipes a phone from a local day laborer, working on the vacant apartment room. Practicing her moves in front of her mirror, Amy inserts herself as a Cutie member after earning some likes, but the young lady’s addiction to social media grows obsessive as the group prepares for a dance competition.
“Cuties” is bursting at the seams with strong ideas through a sharply made vision, thought it chooses not to address some of its most (deliberately) discomforting aspects with any kind of direct discussion, in an effort to represent all the important conversations so many parents never actually sit down to have with their children, perhaps. Most kids live in their own world, too blissfully innocent to grasp the concept of long term repercussions. Doucouré’s film appears more concerned with exploring the consequences a bunch of selfie practice sessions might have, as opposed to sitting down for an actual talk about the potentially vainglorious pitfalls.
Several of the most stand-out sequences are euphorically cathartic, liberating and celebratory, basking in the glory of feminine empowerment in the same way that movies like “The Bling Ring,” or “Hustlers” have, but the fallout of the Cuties consumerist actions don’t have direct legal repercussions, so much as psychological ones. Kids can be mean, really mean, and “Cuties,” isn’t afraid to show ignorant pre-teens uncanny ability to traumatize each other, as giggly gummy bear eating contests turn into life or death playground shoving matches, but it also never stops to say to the kids at its center, “Hey, life doesn’t really work that way.”
The aesthetic craft is subtly resonant, but, structurally, too elliptical for its own good, the screenplay telegraphing conflicts some viewers will see coming from a mile away, while withholding vital info. The purposeful refusal to have any kind of conversation, to craft an insular narrative — to show rather than tell — is a bold one, though not entirely successful. The domestic stakes are a good example: the first 5 to 10 minutes establishes the oppressive side of Amy’s religious life, but then never really returns to what is prohibited until the climax, outside one scene which finds her stealth watching sensual videos of women twerking in sexually lurid poses on Youtube from underneath her hijab, which “Cuties” plays for a laugh.
Everything Doucouré’s script seeds goes wrong all at once, the heaviest aspects of the drama not being dispersed throughout the film at regular intervals, and it doesn’t go anywhere unexpected, only exactly where you feared it might. Watching these girls increasingly inappropriate (and bullying) behavior simply grows more upsetting, until it gets to the point where you want to rewind the movie, have a talk with Amy, and stop her from ever stealing that phone in the first place.
Likely meant to mirror an existence still naive enough to be allowed to drown out real world noise, but not yet mature enough to understand the reasons behind sexual identity, “Cuties” examines the consequences inherent to ignoring the impact of one’s behavior outside the bubble of a screen enamored existence. Its approach may not always work, but the film is undeniably ambitious, and implemented in an affecting way. Parent’s never know what’s really going on in their children’s lives, perhaps less so today than ever before, and some of the most important conversations to be had sometimes never occur, even when all a young heart really needs is a real-life talk that might help them make sense of who they are becoming. [B]