They say there’s no such thing as bad publicity. They lie. Consider the case of French-Senegalese director Maïmouna Doucouré’s touching, observant coming-of-age drama Cuties, about an 11-year-old Muslim girl who joins an all-girl dance group. The film, which won an award at Sundance earlier this year and was picked up for distribution by Netflix, recently found itself at the center of controversy when a poster seemed to sexualize its very young characters, featuring them in tight clothes and weirdly suggestive poses. (The ad was a new one, apparently created by Netflix, who promptly removed the image — albeit after the damage was done.) The movie was condemned sight unseen by many online, even as those who’d actually viewed the film insisted that it was in no way exploitative. Since then, perhaps unsurprisingly, the anti-Cuties cause has also been embraced by various trolls and conspiracy nuts; I’ve heard from a couple of defenders of the film that they’ve been targeted for harassment.
Even so, on the surface, you’d think that this controversy might prove to the picture’s ultimate benefit, turning it from a foreign-language obscurity (the kind of movie that tends to get lost on Netflix) to a must-see flash point. And Cuties certainly deserves to be seen. But it’s also a delicate work that strikes a very careful balance in its portrait of the world, and that balance is upset if a viewer is more worried about social propriety than the truth of lived experience.
Our hero, Amy (Fathia Youssouf Abdillahi), is a Senegalese immigrant who resides with her mother and two younger siblings in a small Parisian apartment where the main bedroom has now been declared off-limits — Amy’s father, we learn, has taken on a second wife, and the room is being prepared and decorated for them by Amy’s poor overworked mother. In one of the film’s most agonizing moments, Amy hides under a bed while she eavesdrops on her mother talking on the phone, informing friends and family of her husband’s new wife. Mom speaks bemusedly and casually about the matter with others, but whimpers inconsolably in between calls, the bed shaking as she beats herself; taught that an unhappy or straying husband is the measure of a wife’s failure, she blames herself. All we see during this scene are mom’s feet: Doucouré often frames Amy’s home life in tight, constrained spaces — blocked off by walls, corridors, and doors, the imagery embodying the sense of emotional suffocation.
It is in this context — a devout, constrained, and impoverished world where women are told there are more of them than men in hell, and that their duties are first and foremost to their spouses — that Amy discovers her upstairs neighbor Angelica (Médina El Aidi-Azouni), whom she first sees energetically dancing in their apartment building’s laundry room. We don’t see Angelica’s face at first, and the reveal when she finally turns, that this girl in tight leather jeans and bright-red tank top is basically a child the same age as Amy, comes as a jolt. Angelica belongs to a quartet of popular girls at school who, calling themselves the “Cuties,” strut through the corridors in age-inappropriate clothing, try to act like grown-ups, and practice their dance moves for an upcoming competition which will pit them against the Sweety-Swaggs, a group of older (though still noticeably young) girls. The Cuties are terrific dancers, but their act is ridiculous given their age. And they don’t actually know anything about the ways of adults — their childish banter reveals they have no idea how sex works, and a scene where one of them finds a used condom, blows it up, and pretends it’s a breast implant results in chaotic, cringeworthy hijinks, like something out of a high-concept Hollywood comedy such as Good Boys.
To the submerged, infinitely curious Amy, however, the Cuties represent liberation and belonging. (That most of these girls appear to be, like her, the children of immigrants is unremarked upon, but perhaps worth noting.) She embraces her newfound friends with the fervor of a fresh convert — commandeering her young brother’s T-shirt to use as a tank top and stealing her older cousin’s cell phone to shoot the Cuties’ routines and post videos on social media, where the cruder the dance moves, the more likes one gets.
The internet and its salacious images fascinate Amy. At one point, during a prayer session, she takes the hijab covering her head and pulls it completely over herself, then watches a half-naked twerking music video in her newfound privacy. Right after the prayers, she sits in the corner and observes the ample bottoms of the women around her as they go about their business, as if she’s just discovered something strange and secret about the world. Cuties is filled with honest moments like this. It’s also filled with horror. During a fight with her older male cousin, Amy suddenly starts to undress. The cousin is instantly mortified and pushes her away, but the tragedy isn’t so much in the action as in the thought: Amy now believes this is how she can get out of a tough situation.
It would have been easy for Doucouré to use a broad brush to paint the different extremes of Amy’s experience (“stifling tradition bad, dancing good”), but she’s not exactly making Footloose here. Cuties is not a blunt screed or a finger-wagging cautionary tale in either direction — which is one reason why anyone watching the film looking for clear messages about right and wrong is bound to be disappointed, maybe even outraged. Doucouré appears to be a far too sensitive director for that kind of polemic. Instead, she subtly juxtaposes Amy’s two worlds to show us that they have certain things in common: All that awkward gyrating and twerking itself exists in a universe as much dominated by male expectation as the strict milieu the girl is ostensibly fleeing — Amy is simply trading in one form of subsumed patriarchy for another. That doesn’t mean, however, that the dancing isn’t fun, or freeing, or that the Cuties don’t help Amy gain a sense of herself. Nor does it mean that there is no love or warmth for her at home, or in her Senegalese community. When a lovely blue traditional dress arrives for Amy, she looks at it admiringly, until she realizes that she is supposed to wear it to her father’s wedding. After that, the dress looms in her closet, both alluring and terrifying — a warning that the future contains both beauty and heartbreak, and very few correct answers.
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