“Today,” an elder tells pint-size protagonist Aminata halfway through Maïmouna Doucouré’s debut feature, Cuties, “I’ll teach you how to be a woman.”
It’s a not-so-subtle moment of irony—because for the 45 minutes that precede that line, Aminata has been trying to figure out precisely that.
Cuties, which hits Netflix on Sept. 9, debuted at Sundance, where it won the directing award. But it’s probably best known now as the movie that got Netflix accused of promoting pedophilia, thanks to a poorly chosen promotional image and the reactionary frenzy that followed it.
As my colleague Cassie da Costa noted at the time, those on the Christian right who raised their torches and pitchforks against Cuties would do well to watch it; the film, which deconstructs pre-teen girls’ fumbling grasps at sexualized empowerment, demonstrates why puritanical campaigns do little to actually protect adolescent girls. But beyond that, everyone should watch Cuties because it is a promising and ambitious debut from a director with a keen eye for contradictions—even when some of her more fanciful flourishes don’t quite land.
In other words: Cuties is a fascinating feat of filmmaking that deserves to be defined on its own merits—not on the terms of those who have not even bothered to see it.
Cuties finds Aminata, a Muslim Senegalese immigrant whose family recently moved to France, at an impossible inflection point in her life. Most obviously, she’s grappling with the first throes of adolescence—a developmental period most of us would retrospectively describe as a reeking, pimple-laden hell. But beyond that Aminata also must confront a wrenching rift in her family—one that seems to reshape how she understands the traditions she grew up with, and herself.
Contradictions sit at the heart of this film. Aminata’s nickname, Amy, translates to “beloved.” But as Cuties opens, the doe-eyed girl watches as her gesture of love toward her mother, Mariam, is unintentionally rejected. We first see Amy crafting a series of cardboard cutouts, which she carefully arranges on Mariam’s bed; she later watches as her mother, exhausted by more than she can yet imagine, climbs into bed, yanking the comforter and scattering the figures without even noticing.
As Amy soon finds out by hiding under that same bed, her father is marrying a second wife—and Mariam is expected to put on a happy face and welcome this development with open arms and chipper phone calls to loved ones.
Meanwhile, Amy begins to fixate on a vibrant group of young girls at her school—the crop-top wearing dance crew the “Cuties.” Amy first spots its bespectacled ringleader, Angelica, dancing and straightening her hair on an ironing board in their apartment building’s laundry facility.
The Cuties’ objective is simple: Win a local dance contest. They’re also deeply invested in proving to everyone they meet how grown up they are—despite their obvious naïveté. (In one of the film’s funniest scenes, the girls become convinced one of their friends has AIDS after blowing up a used condom that she mistook for a balloon—and proceed to scrub her mouth with soap to cure her.) Amy’s family, meanwhile, continues to prepare for her father’s wedding—as her mother decorates what appears to be a marital bedroom for the new couple, which she keeps under lock and key.
But it’s more than the Cuties’ hip pops that seems to transfix Amy. As she browses a grocery store with her two little brothers, she seems mesmerized by the sight and (loud) sounds of the Cuties horsing around a few aisles down. As the girls shriek and laugh, they appear free from the duties—emotional and practical—that the traditional path set before Amy seems to entail. There are no little brothers in sight or life-upending weddings to prepare. Just friends absorbed in mirth. It’s an alluring dream.
Amy eventually manages to break into the group—and its reality, just like that of her traditional upbringing, is more complicated than it might first appear. The girls, like any at that age, can be mercurial and cruel—palling around one moment and excommunicating a member of the group a moment later for a seemingly innocuous transgression. In fact, Amy’s most solid foothold in the crew comes only after another girl, Yasmine’s, explosive fight with Angelica. And despite their haughty fronts, almost every member of the Cuties eventually reveals a fragile side.
But perhaps the most confusing aspect of Cuties is the lack of communication between Amy and her mother. Amy’s increasingly rebellious behavior—which includes allowing her little brother to flood their apartment after she locked him in the bathroom and throwing a cell phone out of the apartment window after her mother asked her to speak with her father—always seems to go unpunished, despite Amy’s purported fear of her elders. That said, the film’s most arresting scene comes when Amy’s mother and Auntie punish her for dressing like a “whore,” dousing her with water as she gyrates as if possessed.
Perhaps the relative absence of Amy’s mother is Doucouré’s way of emphasizing the emotional distance that begins to develop as adolescents peel themselves away from their family units to forge their own identities. Either way, as da Costa notes, the familial guidance Amy does receive is harsh at best—rebukes of her behavior that refuse to investigate or engage with the root of Amy’s desire to behave the way she does. This alienation only drives Amy into an increasingly dark place.
As the wedding plans intensify, Amy’s inner turmoil follows suit. She throws herself into dancing, studying twerking videos from under her headscarf during prayers. She teaches her fellow Cuties increasingly sexual dance moves. And she burrows into the toxic rabbit hole of social media, posting increasingly racy photos on a stolen cellphone and reveling in the “likes” they produce.
One could argue that the options facing Amy, as Doucouré presents them, are a stark and somewhat oversimplified dichotomy: headscarf and piety, or booty shorts and twerking. But as the grocery store scene and others seem to indicate, Amy is mulling a deeper question than that. It’s just that she and her friends, armed only with pre-teen level understandings of what it means to be sexual or empowered, mistake the two as synonymous.
The result? Some very disturbing dance scenes in which the Cuties gyrate, stick their fingers in their mouths, and hump the floor. Doucouré’s camera films these routines as though the girls are in a music video—and all the while, simultaneously captures each childlike facial expression and awkward gesture. Despite the grown-up moves they’re trying to mimic, the Cuties are still just children trying on society’s most widely circulated portrayal of what it means to be “adult.”
At times, Cuties can feel a little contrived. Doucouré invests a fair amount of time establishing a motif of magical realism that never quite pays off, and yes, of course the wedding and the big dance competition are on the same day! And its ending feels sudden and incomplete—failing to connect some crucial dots after the rest of the film painstakingly underscored even its most obvious themes.
Still, Doucouré’s film is an impressive starting point to a promising career that more than earns its running time. And Fathia Youssouf Abdillahi, who plays Amy, is a star in the making who grounds the feature with quiet vulnerability and emotional complexity well beyond her years as a performer. Cuties might revolve around a pretty simple message—no one can teach Amy, or anyone, how to be a woman except herself—but it’s pretty astounding how much else Doucouré finds to say along the way.