I finally watched #cuties and here’s my take. First off, it’s gorgeous, sensitive, unsettling, and deeply empathic. I felt the loneliness of these girls (especially the protagonist, Amy) and their hunger for guidance deep in my bones. Both Amy and the dancer she befriends are latchkey kids who find that missing guidance in each other, their friends, and—surprise, surprise—the Internet.
Amy’s religiously conservative Senegalese mother and auntie attempt to warn her away from her natural curiosities. But when Amy learns that her father, who has been living in Senegal, plans to return with a second wife, Amy rebels.
Now I don’t give a damn if some pervert is turned on by this movie. Perverts can be turned on by anything. And we do not censor artists in order to avoid the expansive tastes of perverts. It is one-hundred-percent okay to make a movie about 11-year-old girls coming of age. And guess what’s involved in an 11-year-old’s coming of age? Dancing, Tik Tok, a burgeoning sexual curiosity, boundary-testing, rule-breaking, and, in many cases, a culture clash between religious conservatism and modern values.
As the mother of an 11-year-old girl (not to mention an 11-year-old girl once myself), I recognized the painful, often humiliating, experience of living through this weird hybrid interval between childhood and womanhood. I also recognized the almost obsessive intimacy of friendship, the thrill of discovering someone else is as confused as you are by this blizzard of mixed signals. Writer/Director Maïmouna Doucouré does not shy from the pain and horror of our society’s relentless objectification of women and girls. It points the camera directly at it. If you’re offended by what you see, I’d suggest you take the next step of aiming that offense where it belongs—not at the filmmaker who pointed this out to you, but to a stubbornly patriarchal society that sexualizes women then shames them for being sexual, that invites their objectification but cries foul when they take the reins to objectify themselves.
And if you’re concerned that the young actresses were somehow harmed by dancing and acting out sexual scenarios (keep in mind, there is no actual nudity in this film), understand that it is actually possible—even in a society as patriarchal as our own—to inhabit a female body and *not* be ashamed of that fact all the time. I can only assume that the young actresses in the film were vastly more secure than the characters they played. As a filmmaker myself, I’m often amazed at the gonzo nature of actors. I couldn’t have done what these girls did when I was 11, but that doesn’t mean they couldn’t. If it comes to light that any of them were tricked or pressured into these startling performances (and there’s no evidence they were), well that’s a different story.
Writer/director Maïmouna Doucouré is an enormous talent. Her confidence as a storyteller is matched by an esthetic nuance that makes this film much more than than the sum of its parts. Ironically, the moral of #cuties couldn’t be more old-fashioned: kids needs guidance from their parents, and if they don’t get it, they’ll turn to their friends and the Internet.