Sexual awkwardness and non-straight desire in puberty is director Céline Sciamma’s recurrent theme, as we have seen in Water Lillies (Naissance des pieuvres, 2007) and Tomboy (2011). Few directors can rival her in portraying the emotional riptides of groups of young girls finding their way in the world.
She also has an excellent eye for widescreen composition, telling textures, the uplift cut, and a killer ear for music. Right from the opening shots of a game of American football being played by the mostly Franco-African banlieu girls who are its subject, Girlhood (Bande de Filles) shows that Sciamma knows how to employ her talents more acutely than ever. Yes, the cliché slo-mo touchdown is there, but she makes us as aware of the shiny too-big helmets and padding as she does of the girls’ athleticism.
Although ostensibly about a ‘girl gang’, the film centres on Marieme (Karidje Toure), a stolid, impassive figure who lives with her mother, her abusively bullying elder brother and two younger siblings. Furious to be told by her school that high school is out of the question and that she must take ‘vocational training’, she attracts the attention of a girl gang run by Lady (Assa Sylla).
She loves the sense of attitudinal freedom she gets from these three girls and begins to dress like them with straightened hair (instead of corn rows), a leather jacket and, ominously, a knife in her back pocket. Sciamma is non-judgemental throughout as the girls hustle weaker kids for money and rent a hotel room to party in shoplifted dresses.
One problem Marieme has is she’s attracted to her brother’s best friend, who wants to reciprocate but tells her he can’t because of her brother. We watch Marieme grow in confidence and stature as she asserts her will.
Girlhood has heart-melting but tough performances from Toure and Sylla, is gorgeous to look at, sees these girls as a vital force of the future, is unafraid to wallow in pop culture as an emotional high and – were it not for a slight faltering of momentum in its final quarter – would be near-perfect. You’ll never see Rihanna’s Diamonds used to greater effect than in a lip-synch sequence here.
In terms of mood there could be no greater contrast between the ebullience of Sciamma’s film and the sombre melancholy of Atom Egoyan’s return to form, Captives.
During a freezing winter eight years before the film’s present, Matthew (Ryan Reynolds) watches his little daughter Cassandra (Peton Kennedy) figure-skating with a boy. Afterwards, as is their ritual, he drives her to a pie shop and goes inside to get her choice of pie.
When he comes out, Cass has vanished and he is horrified to find that, instead of going all out to find his daughter, the police seem more interested in investigating him and suggesting that he sold his daughter to a paedophile ring. Tina (Mireille Enos), Matthew’s distraught wife, also blames him. Eight years later evidence comes to light of Cass’s survival as a tool of just such a paedophile gang.
I’d try not to read more than I’ve just given you about the plot of this film as one of its chief pleasures is piecing together the time-fractured narrative and unfolding relations between the bereft family, local citizens and, in particular, Nicole (Rosario Dawson) and Jeffrey (Scott Speedman), the two cops from the child protection unit who first came down so hard on Matthew. A fine slow-burn crime melodrama, Captives has a similar fairytale atmosphere and storytelling jumble to that which enriched The Sweet Hereafter. It’s good to see Egoyan doing what he does best.