It could be argued that Amy (Fathia Youssouf) and her friends spend the entirety of “Cuties” in a place they should not be, but at one point somewhat late in the film, a male security guard catches them in a moment of physical trespass, kicking them out of the club they’ve snuck into and the girls, no more than 11 or 12, are savvy enough to call his authority into question by screaming “pedophile” at the top of their lungs, bringing his boss into the mix to calm the situation down. Even at their precocious age, the quartet are well-aware of how the world works, but struggle with their place in it, a contradiction which may have been explored in countless coming-of-age tales, but rarely as boldly as in Maïmouna Doucouré’s startling feature debut.
While Catherine Hardwicke’s “Thirteen” comes to mind, Doucouré eschews a gritty aesthetic in favor of a subtly surreal one for the story of the young Amy, who has recently resettled in a new flat with her mother Mariam and two younger siblings, waiting for their father to join them. With Mariam rarely at home, presumably working to keep a roof over their head, Amy looks to find friends at school and for better or worse, locates Coumba, Jess and Angelica, who stand out on the schoolyard for the brawls they’re inclined to start, and as she grows a rebellious streak upon learning inadvertently that her father’s absence is due to bringing home a second wife from Senegal, she fights her way into the group quite literally, becoming a crucial part of their aspirations to win a dance crew competition.
Although their routines are fierce, “Cuties” suggests the young women are moving far too fast, clad in skintight outfits and gyrating in highly-sexualized choreography that they couldn’t even begin to fully comprehend its origin from seeing it on YouTube, though the influence of the Kardashians, namechecked at one point, has clearly reached all the way to France. The much more pernicious cultural root of this, however, is largely left offscreen as you realize that while men can do as they please, whether it’s Amy’s father running around in Senegal or her young brother Ismael, who floods the apartment thinking it would be fun to turn it into a pool, no such avenues exist for women, expected only to serve as sexual objects or to care for any resulting children, and Doucouré brilliantly articulates Amy’s search for direction into an painful binary choice, either staying the religious path her mother has taken, which has left her bound to a husband that doesn’t return her care and consideration, or leaning into sexual objectification where it seems like there’s some liberation in bold outfits and attitude.
Of course, each can quickly become their own prison and by the time “Cuties” reaches a climatic dance scene, which is right up there with the shower scene in “Psycho” in skillfully avoiding anything specifically obscene, but sure to fuel some nightmares, Doucouré has locked up the audience up in it, turning into truly transfixing cinema. Worrying that its central characters are acting beyond their years, you marvel at how the filmmaker directs beyond what should be expected of a debut feature, eliciting remarkable performances from her young cast and carefully establishing the slightly heightened world “Cuties” exists in, offering a powerful plea for society to step up its game as well.
“Cuties” will screen at the Sundance Film Festival on January 24th at 9 am at the Library Center Theatre in Park City and 9 pm at the Salt Lake City Library Theatre, January 25th at 6 pm at the Sundance Mountain Resort Screening Room in Park City, January 29th at 6 pm at the Temple Theatre in Park City and January 31st at 1 pm at the Redstone Cinema 2 in Park City.