Maïmouna Doucouré’s dazzling debut has come under attack for its challenging content – but that’s what makes it such a triumph
The debut film by Maïmouna Doucouré – a thoughtful, challenging and rewarding coming-of-ager – has been targeted by an army of keyboard warriors threatening both the streaming platform that hosts it and those who champion it to take dramatic action (Cancel Netflix! Cancel yourself!) over the film’s perceived explicit content.
Cuties follows Amy (Fathia Youssouf), an 11-year-old girl desperately trying to wriggle free from the traditional values she has been raised on, as she grows to understand herself and other girls around her through dance. It’s not ballet or hip-hop – this is no subversive Billy Elliot. These girls thrust their hips and bite their lips in ferocious, magnetic performances. It’s provocative, destabilising, and electrifying.
Doucouré explores her own roots, the tug of war between Senegalese Muslim customs and the rise of internet culture – putting the female body front and centre, the thrill of young girls coming to learn they’re allowed to be comfortable and confident in themselves. There’s no patronising or demeaning voice from the filmmaker – Doucouré’s camera takes care of her girls, championing their talent, forcing those who try to muzzle their freedom to take a long hard look at what they’ve been missing out on.
As Amy, Youssouf is a force to be reckoned with, always keeping the viewer glued to her perspective as her eyes freeze on the girls she wants to be, the moves she wants to feel. There’s an immediacy that can often be lacking in the genre – although Cady in Mean Girls and Kayla in Eighth Grade narrate their wishes and frustrations, there is still so much more distance than in Cuties.
Confidence is everything, and such a slippery feeling is explored with deep intelligence here, as the layers are delicate, complicated. Amy isn’t just a two-dimensional jittery kid yearning after the popular girls; she has an ocean of her own frustrations and talent that comes to bloom and threaten those she wants to impress. At such an age, every one of them is desperately lost and insecure, because of course they are. But Doucouré understands that there is a fire, a violence to them: a slap on the cheek, a deep sway of the hip, a stream of white-hot tears.
Cuties is not a dangerous film that oversexualises young girls. It’s a hungry, ambitious, often devastating portrait of a youth that has been wrestling with this confusion – this severe whiplash between legacy and desire – forever. It’s not always cute, but the most disrespectful thing we could do to these girls would be to pretend it’s all they ever could be. This film shows how they are, how they thrive – and what a thrill it is to finally see it so colourfully. By choosing to look away, we only have ourselves to blame.
Cuties is now streaming on Netflix.Where to watch