Whatever gifts French writer/director Maïmouna Doucouré brings to the table, “subtlety” isn’t included. Her challenging, provocative hot-button Tween Girls Gone (somewhat) Wild drama “Cuties” (“Mignonnes” in French) slaps you in the face–hard — and not just once but repeatedly.
It barrels through a Senegalese girl’s transition from Muslim immigrant in a patriarchy to twerking, stripper-in-a-rap-video sexually-“woke” in a breakneck fashion.
Doucouré (“Maman(s)” is her best-known credit) grabs “growing up too fast in the West” and rides that message with a vengeance, eschewing smooth, natural transitions in favor of shocks to the system.
It’s as jarring as it is unsettling, crosses lines she doesn’t need her to cross to make her points, and abandons religious hot buttons she seems too timid to wholly engage.
When we meet her, Amy (Fathia Youssouf) is a wide-eyed innocent. She’s 11, dutifully looking after two younger brothers, one in diapers. She is on the cusp of womanhood within her emigre community, listening in on the Muslim women’s ministries’ entreaties to “obey your husbands,” and “fear Allah.”
But her mother (Maïmouna Gueye), keeping the family together by herself, has gotten troubling news. Her husband has found a second wife, and is bringing her back to France to marry and move into their apartment. Mother Mariam had no say, and doesn’t have to articulate the betrayal this feels like.
After all, they left Senegal for Western Europe. Is polygamy even allowed there?
Amy has just absorbed this news when she spies a classmate shaking her groove thing and ironing her long hair in the apartment complex’s laundry room. Amy is transfixed. She watches, admires and envies. She would love to be in with Angelica’s (Médina El Aidi-Azouni) crowd.
They’re a brash, brusque and tightnit quartet that wants to compete in the big dance-off coming up. Amy is entirely too square, too unskilled, too socially awkward and plainly-dressed to crack in with blonde bully Jessica (Ilanah Cami-Goursolas), pushy Coumba (Esther Gohourou) Angelica and Yasmine (Myriam Hamma).
Besides, they’re already a quartet. Sure, she can video them rehearsing. But “I can learn” to dance won’t mean a thing if they don’t alter their lineup.
At home, Amy starts acting out. Her mother understands why she won’t talk to her father on the phone, but is totally unaware she’s stolen an uncle’s phone and her mom’s money, and has utterly immersed herself in the hyper-sexualized Western culture that the Cuties represent. Adults are totally out of the loop with this crowd.
Amy neglects her babysitting duties, hides her new, makeup-and-coochie-cutters/halter top look and makes it her business to imitate her more “mature” peers in every way — flirting with boys, imitating the vulgar displays of underclad music video dancers, and backing up her sisters in her new gang.
Doucouré jerks Amy, and us, through every stage of this transition. One scene, she’s still the demure but curious immigrant. The next she’s Nicki Minaj and Sherri Moon Zombie, a bumping, grinding, pouty-mouthed sex object, totally tarted-up if not quite aware of exactly what it is she’s impersonating.
Youssouf plays Amy as an open-book wonder, eager to “fit in” — numb or just stunningly naive when it comes to recognizing how out of line her behavior is in the culture she’s been raised in.
At several points in the film’s third act her “We-need-to-act-older-than-11” peers recoil, and say “You’ve gone too far” to our heroine. It’s not out of line to think our director has committed the same sin. If a guy had filmed this (As if!), he’d have to hide out in the Polanski Pedophile Precincts of Switzerland.
But it’s not really messaging or Doucouré hitting her points too hard that took me out of “Cuties.” It’s the many abrupt transitions, the too-sudden conversion Amy undergoes, the avoidance of showing stark repercussions within her Islamic community and the unbelievable way Amy comes to understand what she has become and its personal, sexual and moral consequences.
The kid is 11, we keep reminding ourselves. Doucouré seems to occasionally forget.
Doucouré brings a much-needed new perspective and new voice to the cinema. But this doesn’t have the depth or grim impact of a “Kids” (1995) or “thirteen” (2003). And signing on with Netflix, where “M.I.L.F.” and “An Easy Girl” are just the French entries in the streaming service’s race to find a young-younger-youngest sexual “edge,” is no way to pick up one thing her storytelling desperately lacks.
MPAA Rating: TV-MA, sexually suggestive content, slap-fight violence, profanity
Cast: Fathia Youssouf, Médina El Aidi-Azouni, Esther Gohourou, Ilanah Cami-Goursolas, Myriam Hamma and Maïmouna Gueye
Credits: Written and directed by Maïmouna Doucouré. A Netflix release.
Running time: 1:36