An uncompromising and delightful preadolescent drama with dance and danger.
Director: Maimouna Doucoure (Maman[s])
Cast: Fathia Youssouf, Medina El Aidi-Azouni
Runtime: 1h 36 m
Rating: TV MA
By: John DeSando
Out of the innumerable coming of age pre-teen almost-musicals. Cuties ranks high for its honesty and anguish as a young girl awakens to the world and her sexuality through dance and its attendant rebellion. French filmmaker Maimouna Doucoure, who won a directing honor at Sundance, keeps our eye on protagonist Amy (Fathia Youssouf) as her own eye observes the contradictions of her Muslim culture and the allure of pop culture.
Amy is the outsider, an eleven-year old Senegalese immigrant in Paris who would like to belong to a small group of four girls her age called “Cuties” preparing for a dance competition. It’s tough to break through even though the girls are diverse and thereby seeming to be ready for an addition. However, Amy has to prove that she can dance as well as accept the speedy change the girls are going through with sexualized dance that mirrors their own emerging sexuality and Amy’s break with strict Muslim oversight.
Amy’s home life is torn not so much by anger or violence as by Amy’s slow immersion in other culture and indifference to her family’s multi-colored ethnicity. It is mostly about Amy’s breaking from the safety of her culture and assimilating into the outer melting pot.
Although many of the encounters between the girls and the world could be found in other pre-teen melodramas, Cuties has an original feel to it, just as the young girls seem generally unskilled actresses, now awkward then almost adult in their sexy dance. Even their film maturing arc is awkward, never as smooth as most young actresses depict it and therefore more believable as strangers to society and themselves.
This is Amy’s movie, an uneven and often unsophisticated take on the rough ride through puberty she struggles with grit and an inchoate beauty and intelligence that seem on the verge of maturity. As in many preadolescent dramas today, the cell phone is a major instrument of change.
When Amy posts a compromising photo on Instagram, she witnesses how quickly anyone can be ostracized without defense, how dangerous the internet can be. When she watches a dance video under her hijab at a group prayer meeting, her liberation from confining Muslim culture seems inevitable.
As she watches her mother, Mariam (Maimouna Gueye), struggle with her husband taking a new bride, Amy is also observing the effect of culture on her otherwise strong mother. Everyone is changing in this drama; everyone can be hurt. And everyone is a definable character, as fleshed out as possible, and part of the rich mosaic of urban life.
Cuties is not preadolescent smut, as the unfortunate early Netflix trailer suggested but rather an honest study of young girls exploring themselves through their sexuality and a caution for adults who condemn them as whores before they look carefully at the girls and their culture and this enjoyable movie.
John DeSando, a Los Angeles Press Club first-place winner for National Entertainment Journalism, hosts WCBE’s It’s Movie Time and co-hosts Cinema Classics. Contact him at JohnDeSando62@gmail.com