In the opening scenes of Mounia Meddour’s Papicha, 18-year-old university students Nedjma (Lyna Khoudri) and Wassila (Shirine Boutella) sneak out of their dorm and head to a nightclub, changing into their party outfits in a taxi while singing along raucously to Technotronic’s Get Up. It’s a breezy montage of youthful mischief, reminiscent of many a coming-of-age film, until the girls are stopped and questioned by gun-toting soldiers in balaclavas. The film’s setting comes into focus: it’s Algeria in the 1990s, racked by a bloody civil war between the government and Islamist fundamentalist groups.

Such dramatic tonal shifts lend a volatile energy to Papicha, which follows Nedjma – a spunky feminist and aspiring fashion designer – and her group of friends as they contend with increasingly violent calls for women to cover themselves in abayas and stay home. Drawing on her own experiences of attending college during Algeria’s ‘black decade’, Meddour captures the girls’ camaraderie with luminous, fortifying intimacy. Shot in soft close-ups, scenes of them rapping, playing football, putting on make-up, and arguing about boys course with an irreverent joy – which, if it contrasts jarringly with the dangers facing them, only serves to reinforce the poignant fact that life goes on in spite of war. Even in the most turmoiled and precarious of times, people’s days are made up of small moments, of little pleasures and disappointments, the ordinariness of their lives coexisting almost obscenely with the extraordinariness of the horrors around them.

Although excelling at mood, Meddour struggles with the plot, especially as the stakes of the political situation rise. At a turning point in the film, Nedjma’s sister, a journalist, is shot point blank in front of their home, which inspires Nedjma to stage a fashion show at her university using the traditional Maghrebi garment, the haik, in defiance of new restrictions on women’s dress and behaviour.

It’s a strangely contrived and naive response to grief – courageous, yes, but also reckless and misjudged. Khoudri offers a restless, spirited turn, vividly communicating the character’s confused impulses of self-expression and resistance. But the writing undercuts her performance with didactic exchanges about women’s autonomy and implausible twists – encounters with chauvinistic men, a surprise pregnancy, sexual harassment – that add pathos where none is needed. By the time the film reaches its laboured and sensationalistic end, it hammers home a rather simple message: the world has been, and continues to be, unkind to women.