The Movie Waffler New Release Review [Netflix] - CUTIES | The Movie Waffler

New Release Review [Netflix] - CUTIES

cuties review
A young girl defies her Muslim family by joining a dance troupe.

Review by Jason Abbey

Directed by: Maïmouna Doucouré

Starring: Fathia Youssouf, Médina El Aidi-Azouni, Esther Gohourou, Ilanah Cami-Goursolas, Maïmouna Gueye

cuties poster

Any discussion of Maïmouna Doucouré's drama is impossible without a discussion of the elephant in the room. Netflix did a great disservice to this film with an abject trailer and PR campaign that overplayed the raunchy dancing of a group of pre-teens. This created a massive internet backlash and the ire of people that like to find a cause to be angry about.

The release of this on the streaming service has done nothing to decrease the incendiary anger that has led to death threats to the director and accusations of paedophilia against all involved and anyone who has had the temerity to view it. A prurient litany of acts depicted in the film have been listed as evidence of its evil, a list that out of context is both eye opening and, in many cases, factually incorrect. That many of the acts listed have a correlation with recent Hollywood hit Good Boys seems to have passed many people by. Are there elements that may make some uncomfortable? Unquestionably. Should people have to watch something they don’t want to because the subject matter makes them uncomfortable? Of course not.

cuties review

Cuties is never a film about paedophilia or a paedophilic film. It is however a film about immigrant culture in France and a young girl's anger and frustration at a culture that forces a mother to accept another wife for her husband and subserviently comply with tradition, the anger sublimated by the medium of dance.

Amy (Fathia Youssouf) moves with her mother and two younger brothers to a flat in a poor suburb of Paris. Her desire to have the biggest room in the flat is thwarted when her mother locks the door and removes the handle, making the room verboten and loaded with threat in the manor of room 237 of the Overlook Hotel. At a new school and desperate to fit in, she fixates on a mean girl clique who have formed a nascent dance crew who dress in a style more befitting of young adults. They seem both mysteriously attractive and rebellious to Amy, but also seem somewhat estranged from the rest of the school, both more grown up and conversely younger, as though they have secretly played dress up without any understanding of what their image portrays. This is the language of many a high school teen movie, the youth of the protagonists showing how much the pressure to grow up has increased in the intervening years since John Hughes' heyday. Amy wants to dance with them but is rejected for being too poor and naive, her clothing and unadorned face making her too unworldly and immature for these putative preteen sophisticates.

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In a heart-breaking pivotal scene, Amy is playing in her mother’s bedroom and hides under the bed to avoid discovery. It is there that the mother (Maïmouna Gueye) reveals the coveted spare room will be for her husband’s new bride. Tradition dictates that she arranges the wedding and show a smiling face of family unity, breaking down in between each call, revealing the emotional cost that takes its toll as she tries to compose herself for the sake of family unity. This is the catalyst that sparks a rebellion, leading Amy to take risks to ingratiate herself with the group called The Mignonnes (the film's French title) and stealing a cousin's phone, which opens her up to a social and visual media with repercussions that are both playful (the ubiquitous pouting pics posted by teens the world over) and provocative (the imagery of modern day commercial hip hop that straddles a line between female empowerment and the leering gaze of pornography).

cuties review

It is the learning of these dance moves in an attempt to ingratiate herself to the group and to incorporate into the group's dance act that has garnered the controversy that has made this film a bête noire. Cuties however is constantly addressing a culture that is increasingly more sexualised and how young people are supposed to process their burgeoning sexuality against a backdrop that seeks to compartmentalise them into hypersexual beings. The girls are at once hit on and mocked by older boys who are both encouraging them to be older than their years while also mocking them for being silly children. Adults don’t fare much better, but the behaviour is challenged at every turn, as when a security guard who shows a too keen interest in their dance routine is looked at with bemused disgust by his work colleague. The climactic dance routine has both people unquestioningly clapping along while others appear shocked by a routine that is inappropriate for the girls' age group. Unquestionably it is the male gaze that is called into question during these scenes.

The wisest character in the film is an Imam who decrees there is no devil in Amy, that she is just a child and that her mother Mariam can leave her husband if she finds the burden too much to bear. It's a reading of the Quran that is refreshingly at odds with most cinematic depictions of Islam.

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There is more in common with the child rebellion of Arabic film Wadjda and Les Quatre Cents Coups than the Lolita-esque button pushing provocation that the director has been erroneously tarred with. There are however some areas that feel tonally misjudged. A scene where Amy posts a picture of her vagina on social media is non-graphic but shocking. Within the context of the film it comes from a place of anger and a desperate desire for attention of any sort, no matter how damaging, but the impact on the narrative could have easily have been handled by her missing the audition. The final dance contest is also cut in a way that co-opts the imagery of the videos the troupe have been watching, but may have been more tastefully handled at a more respectful distance.

cuties review

There is imagery here that is challenging, but no more so than depicted in films such as The Exorcist, Taxi Driver, Little Miss Sunshine, Walkabout, the early films of Jodie Foster (including Bugsy Malone) and the '80s oeuvre of Brooke Shields. The one area of the film that is unarguable is how sensitively this should be handled when dealing with children. The director has gone to pains to stress that they used child psychologists, talked with the children and their parents continuously while making the film, and in the main the film is very much shot in a way that isolates them from the wider context of the story. The intentions are honourable in this small film that now has to fight a battle that it never intended to start. If at a later date stories of inappropriate behaviour during shooting are revealed, then any and all opprobrium that rains down on this film would be justified. As it currently stands that is not the case.

Netflix may have created a controversy that will harm them financially with the inappropriate handling of this film; although they may find those people ostentatiously closing their accounts will then quietly re-join the streaming service when the next series of Stranger Things is released.

Cuties is on Netflix now.

2020 movie reviews