‘Girlhood’ Director Céline Sciamma on Reclaiming Childhood, Casting Her Girl Gang, and How Her Film Mirrors ‘Boyhood’

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Bodies crushed against one another find solace in a grassy field. The players are suited in an exoskeleton of plastic, rubber, and metal — an armor that will serve them, in spirit, on the streets of the banlieues outside of Paris, where there is no other refuge. Light Asylum’s “Dark Allies” sounds more frantic in this setting, as the final play is made. When the teams remove their helmets, we realize these football players are young girls. From the first frame of Girlhood, director Céline Sciamma makes it clear that identities are worn like costumes.

“I think the movie is kind of a strange creature. It sets a classical goal for the heroine, wanting to be normal, wanting to choose her desire, choose her life,” Sciamma tells me by phone from New York. “And then, it grows into this intimate struggle to find herself and show transformation — kind of like the superhero genre, when she sees what power the ‘costume’ gives her deep inside.” But Girlhood is not just about the dreams of four young black women with seemingly dead-end prospects — though Sciamma stresses the importance of presenting under-explored contemporary issues in her coming-of-age films. “I think the youth of today, it’s not about having an ideal or to fulfill a desire,” she says. “I think she’s a contemporary heroine, because she’s narrowing her refusals. It’s not what she says ‘Yes’ to, it’s what she says ‘No’ to. And I think that’s something quite different and profound from today.”

The “she” Sciamma is referring to is Marieme, played by Karidja Touré  — one of the remarkable non-professional actresses scouted randomly on the street and the focus of Sciamma’s lens. “We had two agendas: we had to build a group with its alchemy, with its energy, and we also had to find those strong individualities,” Sciamma says. Girls who didn’t know each other were chosen over those who did, and many were cast against type to create genuine tension. Assa Sylla’s “Lady” — the aggressive leader of the teenage gang, who acts as a surrogate sister for Marieme as she evolves from a timid observer in an unforgiving environment — was perhaps the shyest of the group. “I picked the girl who was not a natural leader so the weakness of the character would already be in that performance,” the filmmaker explains. “You pick them for those kinds of promises. And, of course, they’re part of this, so they know why you picked them. That’s something I stress, because it’s not about being perfect. It’s about sharing the intellectual journey.”

Sciamma participated in a workshop before production, spending three weeks with the young women who would soon become the “bande de filles” of the film’s French title. “I was the fifth girl of the group. We got to know each other, create a past, create friendship between us,” she explains. “During the shooting, they also lived together — which is something we really wanted. They would even shoot their own film at night.”

Superficial comparisons to Richard Linklater’s Boyhood abound, although Sciamma didn’t spend 12 years watching her cast grow up like Linklater, a native of Texas. Sciamma has watched the film and welcomes the comparisons. She tells me: “I felt the movies mirrored each other, though I didn’t know Boyhood existed at the time. It’s really interesting to compare them. They are both obsessed with the idea that watching somebody grow is engrossing and arresting, but they use totally different tools. That’s what’s beautiful about cinema.”

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The director’s reverence for the young women of Girlhood is clear. The clichés of an urban-set film featuring disaffected black youth are absent here (there is as much tenderness as toughness), evident from the pop-dance-heavy soundtrack (including Rihanna’s “Diamonds,” featured in a sublime scene of female friendship) to the CinemaScope framing — stylishly photographed despite the oppressive landscape. These “aesthetical gestures” — tracking shots and stunning long takes included — reflect Marieme’s refusal to accept the destiny set for her (finishing high school isn’t an option and a stint in drug-dealing goes nowhere fast). “The movie also refuses the artistic direction that is usually set for a low-budget film,” Sciamma states.

Sciamma says that black teenage girls don’t exist in French cinema. They are hardly present in American movies, either. “I don’t think European and American youth have the same rules, the same pressures. Culturally, we know a lot about your youth in Europe, because we grew up with TV showing American characters. The boy every girl fantasizes about is clearly yours,” she says. “I want to be like others. Normal,” Marieme pleads with a teacher at the start of the film after being told she can no longer continue school with her peers due to her failing grades. Her story is heartbreaking right from the start. In the annals of American coming-of-age films, teen classics are largely devoid of these harsh realities, let alone the issues facing non-white teens. For Sciamma, it is important that her characters live and experience — even undergo hardships — and she prefers to explore the struggles within teenage life itself rather than the issues presented by interfering adults. In Girlhood, this approach “isn’t something that unsettles you, but something that empowers you and helps you find your way,” she reaffirms.

“When you make fiction about youth, it’s, of course, trying to document something — but in the meantime it’s a mythological youth,” Sciamma says. “There’s a strong tradition of mythological youth in French cinema — a lot of movies with teenagers involved that are very striking. But the pop culture tradition of the mythological youth is definitely here in America. I’m always trying to make a mix between those two traditions: trying to document the youth of today and trying to portray this in a political way.”

In reclaiming the concept of universal childhood for these often-forgotten outsiders — something Sciamma has also explored through characters with fluid gender and sexual identities (in Tomboy and Water Lilies) — Girlhood joins a growing group of alt-teenage tales (and a few adult ones, like HBO’s Girls) that de-stigmatize “failure” and remind us that while we all inevitably stray from our respective paths, our return is always more compelling and essential than our momentary departure. This is poetically realized in the film’s final scene, portrayed without pity or resolution, but rather strength and possibility. As Sciamma explains, “In the last shot of the film, Marieme wears the braids of childhood, the makeup of a diva, and the clothing of a boy. She’s possibly everything or none of those.”