Out of all the films Netflix is premiering at Sundance this year, Cuties is among the more valiant. The French production is unconventional in comparison to the Hollywood standard. Cuties follows the maturing exploitations of Amy, a daughter of Senegalese immigrants newly moved into the low-class suburbs of France. Maïmouna Doucouré makes this her feature directorial debut – her short film Maman(s) received accolades from Sundance in 2016 and TIFF in 2015. A Senegalese/French coming-of-age story written and directed by a woman of said descent backed by Netflix funding? That is already enough to turn heads, but the fact that it sticks its landing makes it essential viewing.

The traditional Senegalese/Muslim customs and values Amy (Fathia Youssouf – in an incredible performance) has known all her life come into question when she comes across “the cuties”. The self-proclaimed clique of middle school girls act like they run the yard with their brash personalities. This power does not come without purpose for they aspire to be top dancers in the current “scene”. In what becomes a self-discovery of femininity, Amy joins the cuties in their dancing quest of fame. Bonds are broken, values are upset, and secrets begin to make their ways from behind locked doors.

It is easy to make quick comparisons to something like Tina Fey’s Mean Girls, some of which is valid, but Cuties breaks the mold with director Doucouré’s bold vision. Do not be fooled by first impressions, this film carries its heavy themes with the burden and intent to fully utilize them. The main cast of young girls are subject to what French media and pop culture lead them to believe is “real” femininity. Thinness, large breasts, hair, makeup, posture, and attitude all come into question. The cultural and societal ways female youth are affected, both on a conscious and subconscious level, is relevant worldwide. Few films that tackle this topic are potent enough for the rest and either scrape the surface, or do not fully commit – not Cuties.

Doucouré’s methods of getting the message across may turn viewers away. Shots of young girls twerking in a way too provocative along with older men getting some kind of inner satisfaction, make for some very genuine uncomfortableness. One wishes that these visuals would end sooner, instead, the camera focuses on them longer. Call it provocative or abrasive filmmaking, but Doucouré knows exactly what she is doing and is always in control. Never does this reach levels of ill glorification. Occasionally, ideas do not have time to manifest in peoples’ heads because they choose to look away before ugly or devastating truths. However, Cuties does not give viewers the option to look away.

This is a story that could have only been told by someone who has lived the female Senagalese experience. All other attempts would not be as just. It is amazing that despite juggling heavy topics, Doucouré still finds room to make out of the box decisions. Given the context, the film was always going to have her prints all over it. However, Doucouré aims for more. To balance out the heavy, she finds room for memorable moments of levity. To coincide with the heavy, striking visuals that push the barriers of Amy’s maturing body and soul.

Even though the union between Senegal and France defines Cuties, culture clash is relatable on an enormous scale. Anyone whose family is not that of the land they live on understands the trials and hardships of feeling stuck between two worlds. Cuties not only gives hope that it can be naturally done, but also that family bridges do not have to be burned in the process. Doucouré’s film will surely draw conversations as more people see it. Those who even disagree with some of her decisions will find it hard to get these timely themes and ideas out of their heads, thus proving it to be an effective film. Thought-provoking and lead by a superb group of young actresses, one will find it hard to turn away or pause the screen when Cuties lands on Netflix.

★★★★

Cuties is expected to release on Netflix this coming Spring!

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