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Cuties [Mignonnes] (2020)

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Amy, an 11-year-old girl, joins a group of dancers named "the cuties" at school, and rapidly grows aware of her burgeoning femininity -- upsetting her mother and her values in the process.

The most controversial movie of the year, and we're far enough along in this annus horribilis that I doubt the designation will be taken away. Attacked by politicians, mass down-voted on IMDb and Rotten Tomatoes, excoriated in rambling YouTube hot takes, the impetus for a spike in Netflix cancellations. 

As often is the case in these matters, the movie seems to go over better with people who watch it first rather than making up their minds based on Netflix's poster (which is misrepresentative), the trailer, or the synopsis. That doesn't mean you will love it, but at least you can argue against it in good faith.

It is the first feature film for Maïmouna Doucouré, a 35-year-old Senegalese-French screenwriter/director. The heroine, 11-year-old Amy (pronounced like the French word ami), lives in a Paris slum with her devout Islamic family and is responsible for much of the care of two younger brothers. The father is away, and there is tension in the household because he will soon be bringing home a second wife, who will live there and enjoy marital pride of place in a polygamous arrangement.

Amy's grand aunt, one of a long line of elderly movie church ladies of all creeds, pressures the mother to "be a woman" and present herself to neighbors as happy and accepting of the newcomer. The mother internalizes her pain and shame at her demotion—in a brutal scene, she slaps herself and moans like a wounded animal—and Amy is the only child old enough to pick up on this.

Amy begins to reject not only the customs of her religion but modesty and virtue themselves. We can read what is going through her mind: "My mother did everything 'right', and where did it get her?" Amy falls in with a clique of rebellious girls at school who call themselves the "Cuties." They are influenced by older girls, who are in turn influenced by social media and the raunchier side of pop culture. The Cuties practice risqué dance routines in hopes of winning a competition.

The Cuties' behavior is entirely imitative. We see that they understand not at all the provocations with which they are toying, nor are they alert to some real dangers around them. (There is a tense scene in which they show their moves to two security guards, one of whom appears to leer.) Amy's behavior spirals into greater transgressions of theft, violence, and exhibitionism, disturbing her family and even the other Cuties. The film charts her painful search for some sort of equilibrium amidst conflicting messages she receives.  

What has been most controversial about the film is the way Mme. Doucouré shoots the rehearsal and performance scenes for the dance competitions. She is very aggressive here, zooming in close and panning up bodies in skimpy outfits as if directing one of the music videos that were the Cuties' models. And, of course, these bodies are of preadolescents rather than adult women. I will admit that for all her talk in interviews about going through proper channels of French government approval and having a counselor present on set, these scenes make for uneasy viewing. But these scenes (at least, for me) are balanced by the sensitivity of the surrounding material, the convincing picture painted of the culture. 

One talking point has been that real children are taking part in a film they should/would not be allowed to see, but this was equally true for famous R-rated films from The Exorcist to Taxi Driver to Stand by Me. I recall no similar outcry, at least nothing so sustained and vociferous, when Macaulay Culkin at this age played a sociopathic murderer in the rancid thriller The Good Son

Unlike that one, this is not a film with villains we can see. The "evil" is far away, abstract. The main girl is painfully sympathetic; the mother is loving but sad and overwhelmed, and the severe aunt is simply passing on what she was taught long ago, much of it proscriptive or superstitious.

It is not a perfect film. A few detours into magical realism (such as a dress that appears to bleed) clash with the more realistic tone of most of it, and the script resorts too easily to contrivance. Twice, important matters related to the father's second wedding just happen to be on the same day as something involving a dance competition, and Amy begins to look hopeless at planning even for an 11-year-old. But it is a strong first feature, deserving of its critical acclaim more than its opprobrium.

I hope the intense controversy does not harm the writer/director's future opportunities, for I believe hers is a valuable voice. She is helped by powerful performances from Fathia Youssouf as Amy, Maïmouna Gueye as the mother, Mbissine Thérèse Diop (star of the seminal Black Girl more than 50 years ago) as the aunt, and other performers young and adult.   

If you do watch thisI recommend setting your language preferences for French audio with English subtitles. The default is likely to be the English dub, which is as imperfect as such things usually are.

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