I distinctly remember the day I realized my femininity.
It was our final eighth-grade luncheon and we were all in line, nervously anticipating our new journey as high school students, only to be comforted by the smell of freshly fried chicken from the restaurant our math teacher owned. Deviating from my normal baggy Tommy Hilfiger attire (on the days we didn’t have to wear our uniforms), I opted for a satin-and-lace red dress.
As I progressed in line, eager to sink my tiny teeth into a crispy piece of chicken, one boy yelled out, “Damn Tonja, you got a big ol’ booty!” I froze—like Raven having a premonition.
Looking back, I realized this was a coming-of-age moment for me. As such, I’ve always fancied coming-of-age tales and have been especially thrilled to see the recent influx of available Black Girl Stories (™) such as Nijla Mu’min’s Jinn and Numa Perrier’s Jezebel. That same desire brought me to my first film of Sundance 2020: Maïmouna Doucouré’s Cuties (Mignonnes).
Sundance Institute provides the synopsis:
Eleven-year-old Amy lives with her mom, Mariam, and younger brother, awaiting her father to rejoin the family from Senegal. Amy is fascinated by disobedient neighbor Angelica’s free-spirited dance clique, a group that stands in sharp contrast to stoic Mariam’s deeply held traditional values. Undeterred by the girls’ initial brutal dismissal and eager to escape her family’s simmering dysfunction, Amy, through an ignited awareness of her burgeoning femininity, propels the group to enthusiastically embrace an increasingly sensual dance routine, sparking the girls’ hope to twerk their way to stardom at a local dance contest.
“I wish during the next hour and a half that each one of you will become an 11-year-old little girl,” Doucouré told the audience on opening night. Though I didn’t get to attend the premiere, I did see a subsequent screening that ended up kicking off my Sundance Film Festival in the most endearing way. “What a great way to start the fest,” my screening partner and fellow film critic Joi Childs beamed at me as I quickly agreed.
While I appreciated and enjoyed Girlhood (Bande de filles) when I first saw it a few years ago—it incorporates a similar plot about a young girl’s desire to join a girl gang—there is something to be said about a black woman director’s ability to tell the story of a black girl. Fathia Youssouf Abdillahi shines as Amy, masterfully accomplishing the delicate balance of portraying an 11-year-old girl full of vulnerability, prepubescent blooming, peer-pressured desperation, and sexual awakening. Seriously, you can’t take your eyes off of her.
Doucouré’s incorporation of the higher stakes of social media left me shifting uncomfortably in my seat, as the reality of what it must be like to grow up as a little black girl in this digital age settled in my spirit. And that uncomfortable feeling was necessary. It was hard enough growing up in the ‘90s, desperate to fit in among the 30-plus students in my classroom, so I can only imagine how it feels when you multiply that number by the thousands of onlookers judging your social media profile. And yet, this modern story is still somehow universal to every generation, from the first sight of menstrual blood to the rebellious stage of preteens. The more things change, the more they stay the same, indeed.
In addition to the deft portrayal of a fully fleshed-out black girl coming to terms with her femininity, Doucouré also inserts a subplot concerning Amy’s mother, Mariam (Maïmouna Gueye), who grapples with the fact that her husband will be taking on a second wife. In fact, there’s a particular shot I appreciated of Mariam crying, but only her feet were shown—as it was from the perspective of Amy (who was hiding under the bed). That simple shot choice explained so much, highlighting a wife’s true feelings of vulnerability before burying them to stay strong for her family, and having Amy see that. It was simple, yet powerful.
Following a Senegalese immigrant family living in Paris, Cuties is brimming with culture, from the attentive placement of the colorful traditional wedding dresses to the so-close-you-can-smell-them shots of the food preparation.
Sprinkled with fantastic moments of levity and intrigue, Cuties is a goddamn delight and I’m looking forward to everyone getting the opportunity to see it. Variety recently reported that Cuties has been acquired by Netflix (world rights) and we are awaiting a release date.