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Maïmouna Doucouré Cuties Review


Cuties | Review

Cuties | Review

L’amener Sur: Doucouré’s Debut a Winning, Familiar Bildungsroman

Cuties Maïmouna DoucouréFrench writer/director Maïmouna Doucouré strikes a mostly affable balance between familiar coming-of-age tropes and culturally specific intersections with her debut Cuties. A striking portrait of contemporary adolescence filmed in Paris, the film’s focus is an awkward transition for its lead protagonist, a second-generation Senegalese girl increasingly estranged from her family’s culture whilst embracing all the toxic rites of passage of modern teen angst.

Doucouré’s 2015 short “Maman(s)” navigated similar autobiographical territory from a culture which allows for polygamy on the husband’s side, and it’s one of several eye-opening realities which assist in triggering the escapist slanted teen rebellion here. Throw into the mix the usual hypersexualization of young girls and the obliviousness of the adults guiding them and Doucouré portrays a perfect tempest faced by young women in the crafting of their personas defined by a swift loss of innocence and the oft-impossible feat of discovering what one really desires.

Eleven-year-old Amy (Fathia Youssouf Abdillahi) finds herself in a suddenly tenuous position. At home, her mother Mariam (Maïmouna Gueye) is in anguish, and Amy accidentally learns her father, who has been away from the family on a trip to Senegal, has taken a second wife, who he has married and will be bringing home to join their household. While Mariam is preoccupied with her own emotional turmoil, Amy strikes a friendship with the rebellious Angelique, her neighbor in the same apartment complex who is the unofficial head of a dance troupe who call themselves ‘the cuties’ and rehearse for a potential dance competition with the hope to out-twerk an older, rival gang of girl dancers. Angelique’s cohorts initially reject Amy, but eventually she wheedles her way into their graces following the tumultuous and unexpected expulsion of one of their posse, a young girl who unwittingly angers Angelique. It’s not long before Amy has enhanced the troop’s sultriness by introducing more titillating dance moves she’s gleaned from music videos. But the shifting stability at home and the mercurial Angelique force Amy to the point of desperation.

Doucouré (who penned the script) crafted her story with director Alice Winocour (Disorder, 2015; Proxima, 2019), Valentine Milville and Nathalie Surgeon (My Revolution, 2016), and Cuties does feel as if it’s a spiritual cousin to something like 2016’s Mustang, which Winocour wrote, another narrative focused on archaic cultural traditions which repress women and prove to be detrimental in the development of their young, contemporary female characters. Narratives revolving around the arrival of a second wife are rife for contemporary dramatic possibilities but are usually from the perspective of the first wife, such as Kuma (2012) by Umat Dag and Brillante Mendoza’s Thy Womb (2012), so it’s a unique perspective to use it as the foreground for a child simultaneously attempting to assimilate into the culture of another country.

To a significant degree, much of Cuties feels familiar, specifically a troubled journey we can predict for Amy with the dance competition. But Doucouré focuses so tightly on the perspective of Amy, whose adolescent behaviors are wholly familiar, she concocts a compelling slippery slope of how quickly angst mutates into dysfunction and eventually to points of no return. For instance, Cuties is not meant to examine how young women are influenced to seek their worth through desirability, and we’re never privy to how the adults in their realm feel about their troubling, sexually charged dancing, sans some concerned parents in the dance competition audience or Amy’s relatives announcing she’s dressed like a ‘whore.’ Social media plays into Amy’s new conception of herself, though access to the platform is tenuous, as her avatar depends on holding onto a stolen phone from a relative.

The cultural intersections of Cuties are, in essence, barely touched upon, and yet there’s a richness to Doucouré’s coming-of-age narrative which eludes many of her contemporary counterparts. As Amy, Abdillahi is a graceful, mournful screen presence despite the awkwardness of the age in question, and as she begins to embrace her newfound confidence, she is reminiscent of a leggy, teen version of American singer Ciara.

Despite the connections made or lost with various characters, and a commitment to sincerity which sometimes lends itself to grating moments (most often when Amy and her new friends are goofing around and acting their age in public), Amy is an insulated character and Doucouré wisely depends on the performance of Abidllahi to convey the roiling emotions which can’t be fashioned into words.

Reuniting with her “Maman(s)” cinematographer Yann Maritaud, clothing becomes a major focus of Cuties to convey how wardrobe choices represent cultural markers and meanings, finishing on a note of perfection when Amy decides upon an ensemble and activities befitting herself and her age—concluding with a note of magical metaphor recalling the final moments of Maren Ade’s debut The Forest for the Trees (2003).

Reviewed on Thursday, January 23rd at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival – World Cinema Dramatic Competition. 96 mins.


Los Angeles based Nicholas Bell is's Chief Film Critic and covers film festivals such as Sundance, Berlin, Cannes and TIFF. He is part of the critic groups on Rotten Tomatoes, The Los Angeles Film Critics Association (LAFCA), FIPRESCI, the Online Film Critics Society (OFCS) and GALECA. His top 3 for 2023: The Beast (Bonello) Poor Things (Lanthimos), Master Gardener (Schrader). He was a jury member at the 2019 Cleveland International Film Festival.

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