At the top of the year the French film Cuties (Mignonnes), from director Maïmouna Doucouré, had been hailed as one of the best films from the 2020 Sundance Film Festival. The film won Doucouré the festival's Directing Award: World Cinema Dramatic. Our Sundance review called the film an “arresting assessment of the hyper-sexualization of young girls and grapples with the juxtaposition of this issue in a society where women are becoming increasingly sexually liberated."
The film had a seamless August release in France. Then, when Netflix released a U.S. poster that took a scene from the film out of context, Cuties became a target for nonsensical, alt-right trolls. Now, the film is available for Netflix for all to see and to gather their own opinions about it, given that a lot of the social media discourse was driven by accounts with no intention of viewing it. It's the same film that was hailed for portraying how society oversexualizes girls at such a young age and how social media plays a huge role in that. It's also the same film that the French Minister of Gender Equality came out in support of, along with support for the director herself.
The synopsis of Cuties reads: Eleven-year-old Amy, her mother Mariam, and her younger siblings have newly relocated to a home in an impoverished suburb of Paris, awaiting Amy’s father to rejoin the family from Senegal. But as Mariam becomes increasingly distracted by challenges within her marriage, Amy begins to feel the weight of family responsibilities. Eager to seek refuge from her life at home, she becomes fascinated with a free-spirited and rebellious group of girls at her school. Hoping for a taste of freedom and the chance to become popular, she convinces them to let her join their dance crew, which the girls have dubbed “Cuties”. But as they rehearse for a local dance contest, Amy finds herself increasingly torn between her traditional Muslim upbringing and the diverse cultures and attitudes of her new friends in her adopted city.
Shadow and Act spoke with Doucouré on the morning of the film's Netflix release, in which she talked to us about the film's background, social media's impact on young girls, the rise of Black women directors and more.
“My first inspiration [for the film] was, during a neighborhood gathering in Paris, I saw a group of very young girls who came and danced on the stage and they were dancing in a very sexual way like we were used to seeing in [social media] video clips," she explained. "And this intrigued me, so I decided to spend the next year and a half during doing research. And I met over a hundred young girls and listened to their stories. I wanted to know how they, how they were constructing their own femininity in today's society and how they were doing with their self-image at a time when social media is so important. I wanted to listen to their stories and that's how I came up with the idea."
The young girl at the center, Amy, has parallels to Doucouré, in that she also grew up in a polygamous family, a childhood she describes as “beautiful" and surely not “boring."
She told us, “The main character of Amy is my alter ego. She's based on my story. Just like Amy, I had questions about my femininity because I was growing up in two cultures, my parents' Senegalese culture, and then the French culture. So I had all of these questions also about how to become a woman."
The storylines in the film and what the girls are going through are all rooted in real-life events. “All of the stories that you see in the film are based on the stories that [were] told [to] me and I realized that these girls were learning to construct themselves and their version of femininity based on what they saw in social media. I realized that these girls were growing up with a vision that was objectifying women and that they were growing up with this idea of a woman being an object and a woman's worth and value being based on the number of likes that they received."
Doucouré described the way she found the young actress in the lead role as almost “instinctive."
She said, “With Amy in particular, it was absolutely right away that I knew that she was the right one. So I started by having a lot of talks with them [and] communicating with them. I think that many parents after seeing this film are going to want to listen to their children. So what I did was I started out by actually listening to the children and bringing the girls into a climate of trust where we could discuss this issue of hypersexualization and objectification of young girls and I make them part of the discussion. I explained why we were making this film. So, it's a film that is an activist film. And so they [the young actresses] became activists along with me to make this film, [along] with their parents who were also in favor of this activism."
The film has a lot to say about how one’s environment, especially social media, impacts how these young girls perceive the world. And one of the most interesting things about it is that it doesn’t really try to steer you in a certain direction, but rather just give you this uncompromising, unbiased portrait of these young girls."
On this portrayal, the director said, “I really wanted to give a voice to this little girl and I wanted the audience, whatever their age, to become a little 11-year-old girl in today's society and not judge her, but just live through her experience."
The major theme to take away from the film is an important one. “My one message would be that childhood is precious and we all have to protect our children. We all have to come together to figure out what is best for our children so that we can give a beautiful space to our children to grow up safely and peacefully, so that they can have the freedom to choose who they want to become and the best version of themselves."
This is just the beginning for the director, who was honored at Sundance during a huge year for Black women. Aside from Doucouré's win, there were also wins for Black women directors Radha Blank and Garrett Bradly.
“I think that Sundance was extremely encouraging, but we must remain vigilant. It's great to win an award, but we need more diversity and more inclusion at each step of film production, whether it's production, heads of studios, people on the jury, people in every part of film production on the set -- that's what we have to remain vigilant about."
Cuties is streaming on Netflix now.
Photo: Netflix/Getty Images