‘Cuties’ review: thoughtful coming-of-age drama caught up in controversy

Proof that Twitter isn't the best judge of anything, Maïmouna Doucouré's searing critique of premature sexualisation is the opposite of what it's been accused of

Cuties has already been condemned by hundreds of thousands of people who will never even watch it. When it premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in January, this deliberately discomfiting, French coming-of-age drama won largely (though not unequivocally) positive reviews. It only became a cause célèbre a few weeks ago, when Netflix shared a promotional poster showing four pre-teen girls – each around 11 years old – imitating very adult poses familiar from countless recent music videos.

More than 300,000 people signed a petition accusing the film of sexualising “an 11-year-old for the viewing pleasure of paedophiles”, prompting Netflix to apologise for the artwork which was “inappropriate” and “not representative” of the film. Director Maïmouna Doucouré has since received death threats, and said last week that Netflix’s co-CEO Ted Sarandos called her personally to apologise.

That apology was definitely warranted because Doucouré is clearly trying to hold up a mirror here; her film is a powerful exploration of the way young girls are subconsciously encouraged to perform for the male gaze. She lifts the lid through the heartbreaking growing pains of 11-year-old Amy (Fathia Youssouf), a young girl living in a humble Paris apartment with her mother Mariam (Maïmouna Gueye) and two younger siblings. Amy’s father is still in Senegal, where the family hail from, but will soon be joining them in Paris with his second wife in tow. Mariam is devastated to have to share her husband, but is urged by her stoic, old-school aunt (Mbissine Therese Diop) to put on a brave face in front of the community. The aunt also wields a significant influence on Amy, telling her a “grandiose wedding” to a suitable man should be her ultimate goal in life.

Doucouré, who is also of Senegalese heritage, neatly illustrates how Amy finds herself caught between the traditional values of her Muslim family and the image-conscious Western ideals of her peers. In an early scene, we see her trying to straighten her natural Afro hair with a regular household iron after she sees stylish classmate Angelica (Médina El Aidi-Azouni) doing the same thing. Desperate to fit in, Amy begins to dress like a teenager instead of a child and joins Angelica in an all-girl dance troupe called “the Cuties”. Copying the provocative, twerk-heavy routines they see in contemporary music videos, the Cuties are determined to qualify for a big dance contest in central Paris.

Their practice sessions and performances are difficult to watch – if they weren’t, Doucouré’s film wouldn’t be such a damning indictment of the premature sexualisation of young girls. Elsewhere, though, the director’s lack of subtlety can slightly undercut her message. One scene features a vague and lazy suggestion that Kim Kardashian might be partly to blame for the Cuties’ misguided aspirations, and Doucouré relies on a few contrived plot developments to bring her film to its ripe climax. Still, there’s no denying she makes her overall point effectively: this is a vivid and very alarming portrait of a young girl struggling to live up to two competing forms of deeply ingrained patriarchy.

Details

  • Director: Maïmouna Doucouré
  • Starring: Fathia Youssouf, Médina El Aidi-Azouni, Esther Gohourou
  • Release date: September 9 (Netflix)
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