SUNDANCE 2020 FILM FESTIVAL REVIEW! Cuties is a bold, coming-of-age drama about 11-year-old Amy (Fathia Youssouf) in her tween years entering womanhood as a Senegalese Muslim who has moved into a low-income French apartment building in a bustling city with her mother and two younger brothers. As a feature directorial debut for director and writer Maïmouna Doucouré, Cuties is a contemporary view into a fundamental change of life in a modern world of unknown circumstances and how to survive them. Bookending Cuties with traditional Senegalese music, Doucouré presents a harbinger for transformation, giving an inferred nod to time and place.
Confronted by a conservative religion, which allows for polygamy, and, of course, male domination, Amy becomes engaged by her flamboyant and rabble-rouser neighbor Angelica, whose “mean girl” posse puts Amy’s sexuality and social awareness into full gear. We meet Angelica listening to modern music, dancing while doing laundry, straightening her hair with an iron on an ironing board, and appearing as if she exists in a far more appealing life than that of Amy. Modest, curious, and with slight ire, Amy becomes curious and pursues her need for acceptance, especially for the girl’s dance group, “The Cuties.” Desperate to compete in a dance competition, “The Cuties” eventually bring in Amy and kick out an existing member who proves her position by offering twerking and other sexually explicit moves for these young girls to perform. Aware of how these types of dance moves and actions are pervasive throughout social media and culture, but unaware of how offensive this style is for such young budding souls, the girls, nonetheless, pursue a competitive spirit. It is of note how these young actresses deliver this transformation and hold on to their dominance quite believably throughout the film.
“…entering womanhood as a Senegalese Muslim who has moved into a low-income French apartment building in a bustling city…”
Among the many awkward trials of adolescence, Doucouré contrasts Amy’s life awakening with her mother Mariam’s (Maïmouna Gueyedes) despair due to her husband and father of her children taking a second wife along with an aunt’s stoic stance on the traditional role of a Senegalese Muslim woman. With modern life and traditional values clashing, Amy fully immerses herself in rebel behavior. Dressing scantily, stealing her cousin’s cell phone and her mother’s money, bullying others, and taking on challenges that the audience knows will lead to utter embarrassment. But Doucouré has comic relief when needed as girls will be girls bonding over dancing, shopping, and boys. Yet in a world of rampant and explicit sexuality at every corner, the girls are ultimately left to despair in a dance program that is denounced, bringing Amy to a sense of reality.
The performance of Fathia Youssouf is impressive as she transforms her diminutive, naïve self into a towering force. From practicing dance moves in a tiny bathroom to eventually accepting her teenage befuddlement and precociousness as she endures complete humiliation in public and on social media. Learning difficult, hard life-lessons and watching her mother’s own acceptance as well as recognizing her unconditional love, Amy is jumping in joy, as if being freed, as Cuties concludes.
Cuties screened at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival.