They say there’s no such thing as bad publicity. They lie. Consider the case of French-Senegalese director Maïmouna Doucouré’s coming-of-age drama Cuties, about an eleven-year-old Muslim girl who joins an all-girl dance group. The film which premiered at Sundance in January and was picked up by Netflix, recently found itself at the center of controversy when a poster seemed to sexualize its very young characters, featuring them in tight clothes and weirdly suggestive poses. (The poster was a new one created by Netflix, who quickly removed the image — albeit after the damage was done.) The movie was condemned sight unseen by many online, even as those who’d actually seen the film insisted that it was in no way exploitative. Since then, perhaps unsurprisingly, the anti-Cuties movement has also been embraced by various trolls and conspiracy nuts; even a couple of defenders of the film (one I know personally) have been targeted and harassed. Even so, on the surface, you’d think that this controversy might prove to the film’s ultimate benefit, turning it from foreign-language obscurity to a must-see flash point. Only time will tell, but I just wish the film that’s delivered was better.
The aforementioned eleven-year-old girl is Amy (Fathia Youssouf), a Senegalese immigrant who reckons that there are only two ways to be a woman. Amy could mimic her mom (Maïmouna Gueye), a dutiful drudge with three kids and a husband who’s just announced he’s bringing home a second wife. Or she could copy the Cuties, a quartet of brazen girls who wear tube tops to class, screech “Freedom!” in the hallways, and rehearse their dance crew after school. Either way, the new-in-town sixth-grader is ready to select a lane and speed toward maturity. To Doucouré, the choice is simple. Her coming-of-age starts with Amy doodling stick figures and climaxes with the kid twerking in hot pants. The choice is also false, but Doucouré believes that today’s girls see their options in black and white. Cuties job is to coil the contrasting messages and spin them until her lead falls down dizzy, which can make the film feel as subtle as a lawnmower. (You might’ve already put together that, of course, the big wedding and the big dance competition happen on the same day!)
Cuties is an extension of Doucouré’s Sundance-winning short film Maman(s), which was about an eight-year-old child furious when her polygamous dad invites his new bride into their Parisian apartment. And that betrayal — a word Amy and her mother never use, but the emotion Doucouré clearly feels — happened to Doucouré herself, and she’s still tapped into her youthful resentment, shame, and proto-feminist fury. Amy never explains the root of why she’s acting out, not even when her domineering Aunt attempts to disinfect her with a Muslim spiritual ritual. But Doucouré remembers. Aging her lead character three years allows the first-time feature director to explore the contradictions of being eleven, an age just old enough that you want to be older, yet so young that “older” means pretending to be fourteen. Amy’s worldly new friends don’t yet know how much they don’t know. Not only does Coumba (Esther Gohourou), the loudest flirt, mistake a condom for a balloon, after she blows it up, the other girls panic that she’s probably going to die. To be eleven means attempting to simultaneously prove you’re a kid and a grownup, and failing at both. When the gang sneaks into a laser-tag playroom, they try to intimidate the security guard by accusing him of pedophilia, and cap off their attack with the dizzying threat, “We’re children. We’ll call our lawyers!”
Ironically, the movie could use more consequences. Amy tiptoes around her home like her Aunt’s temper is a volcano. Yet, when she screws up, say, by letting Angelica, the Cuties’ ringleader, kick open her second mother’s bedroom door and jump on the tacky rosette blanket, Amy cowers in fear … and nothing bad really happens. There’s a few too many fake-outs to invest in the film’s stakes, even as Amy’s antics get increasingly shocking. The problem might be that Doucouré is too aware that an eleven-year-old has no sense of perspective. A bungled video chat with a cute boy is given more emotional weight than a near-murder. Still, Amy’s most corrosive influence isn’t Angelica, who irons her hair in the laundry room and rules over the girls with a glittered fist. It’s a smartphone Amy steals that allows her to watch half-naked twerking videos underneath her headscarf during afternoon prayers. She’s too naïve to know that stuff of that nature is beyond everyday adult material. Later, she poaches the moves for the Cuties’ big show, setting up a performance that outdoes Little Miss Sunshine in sexualized, awkward audacity. (Doucouré is going more for uncomfortableness than laughs.)
Newcomer Youssouf has an anchoring presence as our lead. And occasionally, Doucouré lets her light up the screen with a smile, and at the director’s most expressionistic, the girl floats. In Cuties most poetic shot, a gust of wind blows into the closet and a gown’s chest heaves as though it’s been aching for an obedient little girl to give it life. It’s in those moments that Doucouré offers a glimpse of the director she might become when she trusts audiences to understand her themes without heavy underlining. With its empty, laughable controversy by its side, it’s till then, in which the image that lingers most being when Amy is gyrating as her Aunt exorcises her with splashes of cold water. The flailing girl looks like she’s suffering — and she also looks like she’s twerking. She’s acting the sinner, and she’s practicing her sin. Her two frauds have converged. As admirable as its vigor and attempted coming-of-age thoughtfulness can be, Cuties ultimately falls under its uneven approach of surface-level explorations and foreseeable, clichéd plotting.
Cuties is available to stream on Netflix