Directed by: Maïmouna Doucouré Released: September 9, 2020
This is a hard post to make. There is no way to address this film without mentioning the horrendous Netflix poster and how that has influenced the release of this movie. It is a bad poster, no question about that. As a bystander, I had taken the stance that it was not an appropriate way to advertise your film, and Netflix defended the film itself seemed so wrong. Now as a critic, someone who wants to take films as a media and how a director says their message through the medium, I thought it was necessary to actually sit down and watch Cuties and understand the film in its entirety. And I left going I wish I hadn’t. The positive reviews and those who enjoyed the film confuse me, because Cuties does not portray the message it wants to say in a safe manner.
Amy, an 11-year-old (very important to remember) Muslim girl moves to France and feels like an outcast. Not just within the new environment, but her family and support structure around her lives in a way she doesn’t, and couldn’t, understand. Her family is fractured, as her father is taking a new wife and her mother, his first wife, feels rejected but must support the decision as based by her religion. Amy must live with and told to support this life, and going to a new school in a new place is hard. She gravitates towards a group of girls who decide to express themselves through dance. They live in a world where woman and young girls like themselves get popular by doing promiscuous videos and dances, so they replicate that. They decide to enter a dance tournament as the “Cuties” and their plan is to shock, or “hypnotize”, the audience with their moves.
So, I will start with what director Maïmouna Doucouré did right. The symbolism on display is poignant and oppressive. Amy’s apartment is cramped and there is a room with no handle yet she knows to not enter. She never actually meets her fathers new bride in person, a scary new figure in her life that she must accept yet told she is kind and will be welcoming. The view that the director gives is a part of society most of the world wouldn’t understand, and for that I must applaud her.
That’s where my praise ends. Putting a part of society on full display in a film is commendable, and the medium of film allows for that to be most powerful. But how she choose to express this is wrong. First is the camera work. The idea of framing is to focus the viewers eyes. Where should they be looking? In Cuties, it is the midriff. The camera is constantly around the young girls bodies in up close and tight angles. In one scene in particular, the girls are learning how to properly “twerk.” No, twerking is not an inherently sexualized dance move, but the actions of the girls is meant to be. It is what they are wanting to be seen as. For the camera to accentuate that seemingly defeats the point of trying to convey the idea that sexualization of young women is what is wrong with mainstream media. It isn’t just that one scene, there are multiple times where I didn’t want to be watching the screen anymore. “Isn’t that the point?” I hear some ask. In the case of Cuties it should have been more tell, not show.
Fathia Youssouf and Medina El Aidi-Azouni, who play Amy and Angelica respectively, are admittedly great in their roles. During the scenes where the two are growing closer as friends where they can’t be themselves around anyone else, those scenes are actually powerful. However, the rest of the cast is dreadful. To be fair, it is a predominantly younger cast and they are all native French speakers (as a side note, I did watch this in French as the English dubbing was ghastly) so for being a representation of what the area is truly like, I do believe the director hit it spot on. But some members of the Cuties have no way to truly expressing the intense emotions needed. Some scenes drag on and others seem…forced. The adults around them are awful, some just dismiss the actions of the tween girls and looking at crowd shots is painful as some of the reactions are disgusting. One shot in particular stood out because I could swear one guy in the audience during a dance scene was enjoying it way too much. While other scenes clearly show that the adults are condemning the actions, yet we are also told that the girls should have expressive freedom. Which is it? I can’t get a read in what the message is supposed to be, which is problematic in a film where we are questioning sexualization of young girls. It should be a clear “don’t do it.”
The biggest slap to the face of the film happens in the third act. I will say right now, I’ll try to limit spoilers but I honestly don’t want anyone to watch this. For anyone reading up to this point and understand that you shouldn’t read on. If you are wanting to watch the film and have an opinion of your own…then this was a strange place to stop reading. Amy has alienated herself from her “friends” (as the group of “Cuties” themselves have said they don’t consider her their friend) and her family after posting a pic of herself on social media caused friction. She wants to do the dance they rehearsed as friends even through she was told by everyone that she can’t and shouldn’t, for various reasons. She sabotages one of the girls and joins the group anyway to perform the dance. This is the worst scene in the film by far, as the camera takes horrible lingering shots of areas and pan shots of the audience just not enjoying it. I do not understand what is supposed to be said here. Amy comes to a realization mid-dance and leaves, to join her family at the wedding still wearing her revealing dance outfit. And that is about it, the last shots are her leaving the apartment and jumping rope with some random kids. So…what is the point? That her actions caught up to her? Not really. She still did horrible things, to every side. Yes, she is only 11. A child shouldn’t have to be dealing with these kinds of emotions or questioning her role in sex. But it isn’t being told as a lesson learned or that anyone was able to help her understand. Nor do we see her undertake any form of consequence for her actions. So I leave the film wondering just why did I watch Cuties, and that’s when i realize the answer is I shouldn’t have.
I do not like Cuties. In any way. I felt as though the message was muddled and wasn’t represented correctly. While certain aspects of film making, such as symbolism and portraying something mainstream media would never touch, were shown adequately, the film itself fails to take a solid stand on any of it’s messages. And when your main idea centers around the idea of sexualzing young girls, you have to be firm about it. By that I mean don’t, it should be clear that girls are being exposed to overtly sexual material and they should be kept safe from it. Cuties does not do that. By allowing the final edit to contain these…gross images of young girls, you defeat the point. You can argue that by me saying that the images are sexual that I am part of the issue, but the film itself quite prominently tells you that the girls are wanting to be seen as sexual. They don’t understand the concept well enough, and that is a part of the problem. But you can pull the camera back a few feet and still convey that this scene is about girls having fun together dancing. For that reason I say you should not watch Cuties, because I wish I hadn’t.