Amy (pronounced ah’-mee, Fathia Youssouf) is just 11, but her life has become unusually complex and difficult. A Senegalese Muslim immigrant in France, she’s coming of age, physically at least, beset by the temptations and indiscretions of puberty. Her father is about to bring a second wife into the home, a development her mother is prepared to tolerate but Amy finds repulsive. She’s new to France, the apartment building, the suburban Paris neighborhood, her school, and to a bullying, cliquish, and sexualized social scene to which she desperately wants to belong. Curiously, everyone in the film speaks fluent English.
As they usually are in such films, authority figures are either useless or make matters worse. “Auntie” (Mbissine Thérèse Diop) is an elderly matriarch who represents uncompromising Senegalese culture and tradition. She celebrates Amy’s emergence as a “woman,” which for Auntie means dicing mountains of onions for her father’s upcoming second wedding, carrying an enormous plate of food on her head (“we’re not in Senegal,” says Amy under her breath), and cheering when Amy starts menstruating. Amy’s mother (Maïmouna Gueye) is critical and often aloof, and she fails to discipline her daughter when she needs it. There’s even an exorcism.
That’s a lot for anyone to handle, and Amy, who’s clever and resourceful enough, but also headstrong and needy, doesn’t do well. She steals valuables from her mother and another family member, stabs a fellow student with a pen, and puts a photo of her genitals on the internet, among many illicit acts. Despite her transgressive nature, Amy—the actress and her girl-gang were selected from some 650 who auditioned—is low-affect and surprisingly non-verbal.
Amy engages in this less than credible, outrageous behavior, because she wants to belong to an in-group of four girls, all about her age, known as the “Cuties.” For the duration of the story, the Cuties (only one other of the young actresses makes any impact on the film; the focus is on Amy) are preoccupied with perfecting their routine for an upcoming dance contest, in which they will compete against the favored “Sweety Swaggs.” Having observed one of the Cuties (Médina El Aidi-Azouni as Angelica) dancing in a basement laundry room (a scene at once superb and surprising), Amy wants to dance, too—and to be accepted by the girls, even if they’re crude, nasty bullies (their nickname for her is “Homeless”). It is Amy, the newest of the group, who moves them from suggestive dancing to truly dirty dancing.
To make this central story line hold up, first-time feature director and writer Maïmouna Doucouré has Amy succeed, then fail, succeed, then fail, succeed, then face still another obstacle in her quest for pre-teen happiness. The result is sometimes engrossing, sometimes tiresome. Amy’s ambition—to bond with a band of (mostly) obnoxious girls—cannot end well, and it doesn’t. She will have her epiphany and—as with the bullying, the futility of authority figures, and her own mean streak—it’s overdone. We’re not prepared to see Amy suddenly embraced by her mother or to watch her abrupt turn from highly sexualized dancing to jumping rope.
‘Cuties’ has sparked considerable controversy because of its presentation of bump-and-grind pre-teen female sexuality.
“Cuties” has sparked considerable controversy because of its presentation of bump-and-grind pre-teen female sexuality. Netflix, which acquired the film after Doucouré won a directing award at Sundance, has been especially vilified for using the skimpily-clad dancing girls on its poster for the film. In reaction, “#CancelNetflix” became the top topic in the US on Twitter in early September. Netflix’s response was to change the poster photo to one from a fantasy scene in the film: happy pre-teens on a shopping spree. Doucouré’s response—and it’s a reasonable one—is that the film depicts a reality inspired by the body imagery that circulates on social media; her inspiration was a talent show she saw in Paris. She also draws from her experience as a Senegalese immigrant in a polygamous family in France. Even so, some viewers will see the final dance scenes—performed by 11- and 12-year-old girls—as exploitative, others as verging on child pornography. Best to see the film and decide for yourself.
Director: Maïmouna Doucouré
Starring: Fathia Youssouf, Médina El Aidi-Azouni, Maïmouna Gueye, Mbissine Thérèse Diop
Languages: Mostly English, French, Spanish, Arabic; all subtitled in English
Other Awards: Best Director, Sundance World Cinema; 3 other nominations to date
Runtime: 96 minutes
Cuties (“Mignonnes”) ★★★ (out of 4 stars)
Available: Streaming Netflix; see JustWatch here for updated availability.