In a scene in the first half of the award-winning French film, one of the central 11-year-old girls finds an open and very likely used condom in a public park. She doesn’t know what it is and inflates it to create a pretend boob to impress her friends for laughs. One of her peers immediately stops her and explains in quick fashion the disgustingness of what she’s touching. The puffed-up confidence in the initial girl is quickly erased with mortification. In a reply of shock and embarrassment, all she could muster to say was, “How was I supposed to know that. It’s not my fault I didn’t know what it was.”
No, young lady, it sure wasn’t your fault. Scenes like that one and many others completely devoid of adult supervision, positive influences, and honest coming-of-age education typify in a dramatized fashion the challenges and dangers of gender definitions, self-image, sexual freedom, and dozens more that often engulf teenagers. Cuties is a movie that displays those tangible negatives.
The second scene comes later. Moving like a moth to deadly fire all movie long, our main character Amy, a Senegalese Muslim immigrant to France played with bracing emotion by Fathia Youssouf, has fully embraced the devil-may-care lifestyle of a local clique of fellow girls that call themselves “The Cuties.” In trying to earn attention and prove her presumed worth for their shared dance competition goals, Amy has lashed out and committed acts that even the hardcore original Cuties define as wrong and too far. They kick Amy out of the group and it enrages her further.
That was a telling turning point. For the wildest girls that throw caution to the wind, even they had their limits and lines in the sand. It is very likely that their collective limits will exceed those of the domestic audiences watching this film at far earlier moments than this late collapse. If even reading those two scenes is too much, welcome again to challenge and caution. That is the honest reality examined by Maïmouna Doucouré’s film.
To rewind, Amy comes from a transitioning household of poverty and tradition. Her mother Mariam (Maïmouna Gueye) is raising three children alone while hurt internally by the move of her children’s father to take another wife and exit the parental picture. Mariam’s anger creates a wavering seesaw between despondency and strictness where the different religious and cultural implications loom large in Cuties.
Amy’s familial elders insist on teaching her how to be a woman, which on some level entails preparing food, remaining clothed and pious from external evils, and maintaining a demure personality of complete obedience. Who deems that to be the right or wrong way to that adulthood? Is that fair and free femininity? How often does that forced ideal create oppression and objectification instead of true freedom and, most of all, choice? Where is that correct benchmark? Welcome again to challenge and caution.
Compared to the rigidity at home, The Cuties, led by an accommodating apartment neighbor named Angelica (Médina El Aidi-Azouni), look attractive and fascinating to Amy. The truth is they are plastic bullies who are ruthless and rule-less with little to no social boundaries. Initial silliness quickly turns more deviant. Their peer pressure first against Amy and then to later include her is sexualized with taboo mischief and attention-seeking thirst for male crushes. Those aren’t good social choices. The wrong friends are the wrong influence, but a lonely and jaded newcomer like Amy doesn’t see that or know better.
What these girls are superficially pretending to be with their fashion choices, body image, language, and behavior is a warped theory of what their unguided and uninformed selves think a superior woman needs to be. The ease of digital access to adult content shows these youths that the more a woman is sexualized, the more successful they are. The rest is emulation not all that far removed from girls in the 1980s channeling an attitude and practicing Madonna’s bold dance moves as a chance for self-expression. Content choices and ratings notwithstanding, dancing counts as engagement and skill-building practice with choreographic detail. Could dancers use that skill for better things? Of course, but in Cuties who or what is there to offer alternatives?
Back then, the audience for your little MTV concert was yourself in a mirror or, at most, a slumber party group of your besties. Today, it’s the wide-open and unfiltered outlets of social media like TikTok or Instagram on an internet crawling with privacy-invading eyes and predatory presences. The risks are exponentially worse. You are watching, but who else is? How secure is your privacy and, for that matter, your dignity or innocence? Welcome again to challenge and caution.
The film does not discount such dangers in the slightest—quite the opposite, in fact. For a film that rarely leaves the shell-shocked and world-absorbing face of Youssouf, the increasing and desperate failures from her difficult situations and culture clash confusion flesh out a valuable and compelling tale of staunch social warnings. There are lines between provocation and expression. Cuties is far more the latter than the former.
If your ruffled feathers ask what kind of monster could make what the rumors say this movie is, pause that fear-mongering to watch and listen to the filmmaker herself. Maïmouna Doucouré, winner of the directing award for World Cinema at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival, researched this for a year-and-a-half. She is your essential perspective and necessary context. This is not my lifestyle to judge nor yours. Projecting your ideal here of what is explicit or exploitative is out of place in allowing her to tell her story. It’s pure and rank bias when you do that.
It begs to be said: What are you really going to do about it? When it comes to Cuties, if you don’t like what you see of these errant kids left to their own wiles and devices, your gut is accurate and working. If its imagery bothers you, it’s supposed to. Check your gaze and your privilege. Now, look past the fictional take and target the very valid and present potential problem in our own settings and lives off the Netflix couch. If you don’t want that, prevent it with education. If you don’t want those sexualized elements to be goals, don’t make them so appealing and desirable to the uninformed. Adjust those expectations or create better ones. Shake your head, change your stance to empathy and honesty, and act accordingly to our daughters and children. Get there and you have made it precisely to the point that is being hammered home.