TIFF 2022 Review: A Little Imagination Goes A Long Way in Maïmouna Doucouré’s “Hawa”

It may not have been intended, but there is something particularly gratifying about Maïmouna Doucouré roaring back from the needless controversy that surrounded her debut feature “Cuties” with a film centered around a defiant and undeterred protagonist. The frizzy-haired young girl (Sania Halifa) for whom “Hawa” is named after seems about as inevitable as lighting, racing around Paris on her Razr scooter and getting inside buildings where she proves as agile as Spider-Man in crawling around the premises. Survival skills are necessary these days when her grandmother Maminata (Oumou Sangaré) is close to death, though a proud performer of Cameroonian music, the elder has soft-pedaled her condition as she’s tried to find a suitable home for Hawa, which hasn’t been easy. Hawa, not one to let anyone to do anything for her that she can’t do herself, takes matters into her own hands.

There was a magical realism in “Cuties” that may have confused those looking to pick a fight with its distributor Netflix, slightly jarring tonally when it dealt with the oversexualization of young girls, but a fascinating way in when you could see what was enchanting about forming a pop act, throwing all other concerns to the side. Doucouré leans into this sweet spot between whimsy and harsh reality even more in “Hawa,” fashioning a “Madeline”-esque adventure that sees its lead dashing all about the city in search of Michelle Obama, in town for four days for her book tour for “Higher,” convinced she would be a perfect adoptive mother after reading that her biological daughters are now off to college and suspects she must have a pretty big house. However, the director has really developed a distinctive style and original perspective when she’s able to channel what Hawa sees while acknowledging the perils of the world she won’t quite understand until she’s an adult, perhaps setting her up for a devastating blow from the things that others try to protect her from once they’re no longer there, but also having the benefit of making her blissfully ignorant of how she should and shouldn’t behave.

In her single-minded pursuit to meet Obama at private receptions and book signings she’s become aware of, Hawa is oblivious to her own strength as she finagles her way into meetings with the singer Yseult and the famed astronaut Thomas Pesquet, and with such a striking presence with her coke-bottle glasses and albino complexion, it’s not like any of these achievements happen under the radar. Doucouré and co-writers Zangro and Alain Michel-Blanc make learning about who she is as much a part of Hawa’s growth as the experiences she has, matching the logistical sophistication of large-scale set-pieces of the resourceful girl gliding through the baggage carousel at De Gaulle and roaming around the light fixtures of a concert hall with a growing awareness of the world she’s a part of. More impressive than the places she squeezes into is how the filmmakers give just enough room for Hawa and Maminata to reflect amidst all the mischief, affording the film a deeply soulful core that feeds into the conviction driving Hawa to such wild ends and bound to enter even the most impenetrable of hearts.

“Hawa” will screen again at the Toronto Film Festival at the Scotiabank on September 14th at 11 am and September 17th at 9:05 am.