Mignonnes (or Cuties as it’s English translation has been infamously known) is a French coming-of-age drama written and directed by Maïmouna Doucouré about a young Senegalese-French girl, raised Muslim, named Amy (Fathia Youssouf) who admires a high-energy yet aggressive clique of wannabe dancer girls who call themselves the “Cuties”. With a stolen smartphone she uses to watch rap videos and other provocative dancers on YouTube, Amy comes to the group with new ideas and new moves which the other girls love and practice obsessively to compete with in an upcoming competition. Meanwhile, Amy’s family crumbles slowly as her mother struggles to live with her polygamist husband.
This movie is mostly known now by its rather misleading promotional campaign by Netflix which led most people to believe (including this critic at first) that the movie was a misguided and offensive exploitation of children dressed in sexually-explicit outfits. At first, I dismissed it as such and forgot about its existence. However, things started to divide further amongst social media as some people got word of its content involving these 11-year-old girls twerking and dancing in ways reminiscent of Cardi B or Nicki Minaj, or actually exposing their genitalia to others in their school. But other film critics who had seen the film either at its Sundance premiere or with screenings Netflix had sent out decried this reaction as taking the film out of context, that it was pointing out how young women today are told to dress and act in an explicit fashion because it’s what’s fashionable or trendy on social media. Back and forth the sides fought, those calling to #CancelNetflix were the loudest and got the most attention from muck-racking websites and news channels, and it has unfortunately been yet another example of people judging a film far too much before it’s even been released to the public.
One could think of Joker as a recent example of social media division over a movie causing controversy, clickbait-articles and fears from those uneducated in film to think it was a glorification of violence or chaos in an already violent or chaotic world. Film history itself is littered with these examples, from Lolita to The Last Temptation of Christ, and as such the films end up speaking for themselves and people forget about such ridiculous “controversies”, until another generation discovers Tropic Thunder and calls it “racist” without any context.
Anyway, I saw Cuties and thought it was fine. It’s nice for a new movie to give perspective to a Muslim girl born in Senegal and raised in France against a familiar narrative. As for the explicit nature of the film, it both does and doesn’t do a great job of having a satirical or interrogative perspective on the exploitation of youth through social media.
The first half of the film nails the subjective point-of-view of Amy looking at the world, whether it’s only seeing her mother’s feet while hiding under her bed, and listening in to a heartbreaking conversation about her father marrying a new woman, or looking at other “Cuties” and how they move, the camera locks us in to this and provides a direct access to how a young girl sees the confusing world around her. The other “Cuties” are characters cut almost whole cloth from teen comedy-dramas from the 80s and 90s: all aggressive and insular, mistrusting of anyone new but still up for a bit of hazing and insulting each other. They could easily be reflections of the kind of stereotypes that film and TV insists are how women behave and thus that misrepresentation gets absorbed by the impressionable youth of today. The subjectivity does remains strong and Doucouré cares deeply about the issues she puts into her own script, delivering them with equal measures of subtlety and brute force.
However, it was once the girls get accepted to compete in the oh-so-important dance competition and run out into the streets to celebrate that I became disinterested in the movie and began shutting off from where it went next. The subjective nature of the camerawork feels quite concrete, guaranteeing a particular perspective on these ideas will be maintained. But when the girls are celebrating their success, the filmmaking rejects the established style and goes into a full music video mode with low angles of the characters looking straight down the lens whilst practicing their explicit moves. Without someone seen to be looking at them, it all feels objective. And when you have pre-teenage girls having their bodies shown full-force at the camera without a clear perspective, the movie begins to lose meaning and feel unfocused and sometimes wrong.
I know none of this was the intentions of the filmmakers to lose the subjectivity and expose these actors in any way. What I’m saying is that certain angles and changes to the camerawork midstream muddy the intentions up, in a way that Joker from last year was against violence until it started to shoot the violent acts in impressionable and often desirable ways according to the rules of the camera.
The story moves along and hits all the predictable beats: Amy goes too far in trying to be accepted and causes herself to be exposed to the school in a way reminiscent of most teen dramas, the competition is on the same day as her father’s second wedding, the competition itself is seen as exploitative by the audience, Amy backs away and is scolded by her conservative aunt yet defended by her mother in a touching change of heart, and the movie ends with Amy feeling renewed about her place in the world. Nice, predictable, but often at odds with the confrontational and unique first half that sought to bring about a fresh perspective in cinema.
The controversy around the film is completely wrong and misguided, though Netflix should definitely be ashamed of the thoughtless and inconsiderate marketing done without the consent of the director, producers, or cast. Cuties has some mixed messaging about its themes and content and could have nailed a more unique perspective all the way throughout, but has enough respectable choices for people to accept and understand what the filmmakers intentions were. If it makes some critics best-of lists by the end of the year, I won’t be surprised. If you are judging Cuties or Mignonnes without even seeing it, you should correct yourself, watch it, and then make up your own mind.
Director: Maïmouna Doucouré
Starring: Fathia Youssouf, Médine El Aidi-Azouni, Esther Gohourou
Writer: Maïmouna Doucouré