Maïmouna Doucouré’s Sundance entry Cuties has a lot on her mind but digs uncomfortably into over-sexualization.
(This review is part of our coverage of the 2020 Sundance Film Festival.)
Maïmouna Doucouré has a lot on her mind in the French film Cuties, but her own beliefs are more opaque about the topics which clearly fascinate her. She certainly gives her 11-year-old protagonist Amy (Fathia Youssouf Abdillahi) quite a bit to deal with, with the exact nature of her fears only revealed at the very end, where it finally becomes clear just who will be Amy’s saving grace in the labyrinth of contrasting expectations which awaits her rapidly approaching womanhood.
The more immediate nature of what awaits Amy is revealed to her only through happenstance, as she and her mother Mariam (Maïmouna Gueye) await her father’s return from Senegal. By eavesdropping on a series of adult conversations, Amy learns the true nature of her father’s absence, which involves taking a second wife, who will soon be residing with them in their apartment.
Such developments would send the best of us into an emotional tailspin, but Amy also has to witness Mariam’s pain and humiliation from what the other women see as her duty, which involves calling others in the community to cheerily announce the news, and preparing the food for the wedding, which will occur at their own home. All the while, her local mosque preaches modesty and obedience while warning of the Hell which awaits those who disobey.
Doucouré has a lot on her mind… but her own beliefs are more opaque about the topics which clearly fascinate her.
Such a repressive environment tends to birth extremes, and sure enough, Amy is drawn to a dance group at her school which not only offers escape, but an outlet to express the emotions her stoic culture forbids her from voicing. With all the zeal of a convert, Amy is soon leading the other girls into increasingly provocative dance routines, and taking actions that soon appall even her new friends, who are already eager to sexualize themselves.
In another movie, they’d be symbolic of a generation’s over-sexualization and victimization, but Cuties would rather explore the preteen dynamics Doucouré has a keen eye for with an interesting addition of some magical realism. It’s not without some discomfort though, as the camera zooms right in on the girls in a fashion far more suited to adult women, which couldn’t be anything other than cringy. At least the film doesn’t pretend that any of the various cultures Amy is struggling to navigate will ever do right by her, although it does offer another way between extremes, where perhaps true freedom can be found.
Cuties competed in the World Cinema Dramatic Competition at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival and is currently seeking distribution. Doucouré was awarded the Directing Award: World Cinema Dramatic Award for Cuties.
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