It was only a matter of time before “Boyhood,” last year’s indie darling and Oscar front-runner, would be followed up by “Girlhood.” In fact, though, Celine Sciamma’s film, about a group of teenage girls in the working-class suburbs of Paris, was not intended as a sequel or a retort. It’s pure cinematic kismet that this engrossing, if ultimately frustrating, film (called “Bande de filles” in French) is arriving in American theaters now, offering an often poignantly candid and unsettling view of how female identity is crushed, controlled and — with any luck — created in spite of patriarchal repression.
Marieme (Karidja Toure) lives with her mother and sisters in a cramped apartment, where she’s routinely bossed and beaten by her domineering older brother. Stoic and steady-eyed, Marieme desperately wants to attend an academic high school, but her grades are consigning her to vocational education. Glumly contemplating her grim home life and unpromising prospects, she falls in with a three-girl gang led by the lanky, charismatic Lady (Assa Sylla), who promptly rechristens Marieme “Vic” and leads her into a world of female gangs that’s simultaneously frightening, liberating and empowering.
Artfully filmed by Sciamma in a chilly but rich palette of varying shades of blue, “Girlhood” has some of the spontaneity of dramas by such naturalists as the Dardenne brothers; Toure and her sister cast members are not professional actresses and exude an unforced air of playful camaraderie, especially when they’re dancing and clowning in private. On the street, however, they strike a tougher pose, mouthing off to rival groups of girls, getting into fights and intimidating passers-by for money.
If “Girlhood” is part of a long tradition in bare-bones working-class portraits, it’s also heavily theoretical and ideologically rigorous: From its opening scene of girls playing American-style football and a subsequent moment when their exuberant chatter falls silent upon sighting a group of young men, Sciamma isn’t creating a portrait of Marieme’s inner life so much as a study in how sexism thwarts girls’ attempts to claim and hold social space.
The quiet, self-possessed Marieme winds up taking on different personae as she navigates that territory, making a series of choices that, while understandable, seemed destined for tragedy. “Girlhood” ends on a indeterminate, purposefully opaque note that feels unfair given how much the filmmaker and audience have invested in her journey. Still, Sciamma has redefined teenage female friendship in fierce, funny, uncompromising ways, allowing the strained bravado and ritualized aggression to coexist with tender moments of support and compassion. “Girlhood” is a mesmerizing exercise in the enlightenment that can happen when a filmmaker shifts the male cinematic gaze ever so slightly and uncovers what looks like a whole new world.
Unrated. At area theaters. Contains profanity, fighting, drug use and sexuality. In French, with subtitles. 113 minutes.