'Cuties' aka 'Mignonnes' Review: Raw portrayal of how a young girl comes of age makes Netflix movie must-watch
Regardless of what criticism you have heard about 'Cuties', do not miss the movie
Spoilers for 'Cuties' aka 'Mignonnes'
Early on in the French movie, originally titled 'Mignonnes', our protagonist Amy (Fathia Youssouf Abdillahi) meets Angelica (Médina El Aidi-Azouni). Alone in the laundry room of their apartment building, the young Angelica is blasting Spanish reggae music and grooving to the beat in a way that Amy has never seen before.
Throughout this sequence, Angelica's face isn't shown, the camera only captures her free, dancing spirit. Dressed in bright colors, showing off her midriff, shaking her head and long, flowing mane, Angelica, to Amy, is like an anomaly — the kind of person, girl or woman she hasn't ever been allowed to be — the way of life that she is not allowed to have.
Eleven-year-old Amy has only recently moved from Senegal to France. She lives with her mom Mariam (Maïmouna Gueye), a toddler sibling, and younger brother Ismael (Demba Diaw), waiting for her father to rejoin the family from their hometown. However, no time into the movie, it is revealed to her that her father has actually taken a new wife. It is when she hears her mother sobbing while delivering the news of her husband's new wife that something clicks inside of her — and from then on, she takes all agency of herself.
Angelica and her friends form Cuties, a dance clique that aims to win a local dance competition. The group of friends dresses in whatever they like (even as Amy's mother repeatedly makes it clear that these are the clothes of a "slut", a "whore"). They meet in isolated spots and dance to reggae and crass hip-hop. Soon enough, fascinated by their disobedience, Amy campaigns for entry into the clique. However, she is fully aware that the dance and their associated behaviors stand in sharp contrast to her stoic mother Mariam's deep-held traditional, orthodox values.
Amy begins to live a double life. Inside the house, and during prayer hours with her mother, she is dressed in her signature blue hoodie and covers her head, but once outside, Amy sports crop tops that cling to her little frame, shorts, and make-up. At one point, she twerks in front of two security men to get herself and her friends out of a situation. And then goes on to choreograph increasingly sensual dance routines sparking the girls' hope to twerk their way to stardom — because what else is the best way to win against their senior rivals?
The girls learn to twerk, make sensual faces at the camera, touch themselves while dancing, look into the eyes of the audience — take charge of their sexuality. But where is this coming from? Amy hasn't, and possibly can't, conjure these ideas in her head just out of nowhere. Amy's discovery of her sexuality comes from the mainstream media — the ideas she has about her art and her body also come from mainstream media that sexualizes the young girl. A media (and society) that is eager for a girl to grow into a young woman but still wants her to be small and coy.
Cinematography by Yann Maritaud combined with the direction of Maïmouna Doucouré is praiseworthy. When home, Amy finds herself shut and suffocated inside the confines of the walls of a room that her father has bought. But when outside, the sky is the limit, she decides her ways and rules.
Regardless of what criticism you have heard about 'Cuties', do not miss the movie. Shortly ahead of the release, Netflix had gotten itself in controversy for apparently hypersexualizing the girls. What did not work in the favor of the movie is an awful trailer that offered only a cursory look at the film. It is a long-standing debate whether trailers actually work for the benefit of movies, but it in this particular case, they clearly haven't. So much so that IMDb holds a 1.3/10 rating despite the movie not having seen a release.
But 'Cuties' is a coming of age movie like never before — and so it would be wise to give it the chance it deserves. It is not for nothing that the movie won an award at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival. Directed by Maïmouna Doucouré as her feature directorial debut, the movie is funny, heartwarming, thrilling, even nostalgic in parts, and holds the power to move you to tears. It is a truly raw portrayal of the coming of age experience of girls growing up in traditionally orthodox households — eager to break out of societal confines but lost in the real world.
'Cuties' is currently streaming on Netflix.