Cuties is available to watch on Netflix.

At the start of Cuties (Mignonnes), 11-year-old Amy is forbidden by her harried Senegalese mother from entering a certain bedroom in their new apartment. They’ve just moved into a multiethnic housing estate on the outskirts of Paris, welcomed by the local Muslim community. Yet Amy herself is drawn to neighbour Angelica, tightly clad and dancing provocatively to upbeat music in the communal laundry room.

This set-up of family restrictions versus social rebellion defines Amy’s world, but the metaphor of a prohibited space is particularly apt for a film which has been accused of crossing the line by hyper-sexualising adolescent girls. Ironically, many of the loudest Cuties detractors in the #CancelNetflix brigade haven’t actually seen the coming-of-age film, which paints a sensitive portrait of Amy’s home life. Tasked with looking after her two younger brothers, it is no wonder this lonely outsider finds an appealing freedom in the brassiness of Angelica and her four-girl clique, who run riot at her new school. The ‘Cuties’ are rehearsing a sassy routine for an upcoming dance competition, and Amy, of course, wants in.

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Cuties (2020)

In the familiar tradition of these schoolyard dramas, Amy is initially bullied by the Cuties, but gradually wins their acceptance, mainly through befriending Angelica and stealing a phone. Not only does the phone become a status symbol for Amy, leading the Cuties to recruit her to film them, but it also becomes her window into the alluring, dangerous world of social media. Soon, she is pouting for selfies and uploading them, delighted to accrue ‘likes’.

Other works (Eighth Grade, 13 Reasons Why) have explored this adolescent terrain, but Cuties is the most explicit in drawing a direct line between the sexualised content available online and the subsequent mimicry of under-age viewers. Armed with her stolen phone, Amy adopts the ‘male gaze’ when she choreographs and then films the Cuties in their new dance routine. These 11-year-olds pout and twerk for the camera, which lingers over their prepubescent bodies in a mimicry of sultry music videos. It makes for uncomfortable viewing. But first-time filmmaker Maïmouna Doucouré gets her point across: these girls are simply trying to act older and sexy, unaware that they are playing with fire.

In fact, the girls themselves are quite ignorant about sex, and Doucouré mines this for entertaining comedy. They giggle over boys, gossip and argue, but this tween Mean Girls material – and the well-worn plot mechanics of the climactic dance competition – overshadows Doucouré’s more thoughtful observations of Amy’s family and community life. In the film’s most poignant scene, Amy hides under a bed and sheds silent tears for her mother: her absent father has taken a second wife and will be bringing her home to live with the family. The forbidden bedroom, of course, is reserved for the new bride.

Doucouré’s César-winning short Maman(s) (2015 – watch online) depicted a similar family scenario and Cuties is at its most compelling when rooted in Amy’s Franco-Senegalese home life, in her tender scenes with her brother and the long-suffering dignity of her mother. Eventually, the escalating conflict between Amy’s familial obligations and her scantily-clad Cuties identity becomes too rushed and schematic. There are also interesting but undeveloped supernatural moments involving a traditional Senegalese dress she is expected to wear at the upcoming wedding.

But the uneven journey is anchored by Fathia Youssouf’s mesmerising central performance, equally persuasive as a lip-glossed, preening poser and an innocent, misunderstood loner. A rich soundtrack encompasses saucy dance tracks and soulful Senegalese vocals to powerful effect, and Yann Maritaud’s vibrant cinematography follows Amy through city streets and into more surreal, transcendent moments. While ethical conversations remain about how much to exhibit the very subject of one’s critique, Cuties exposes the equal pressures of traditional domesticity and sexualised imagery on women and girls, taking us on a heartfelt journey through Amy’s missteps towards her coming-of-age.

Originally published: 16 September 2020