‘Cuties’ Review

Sigh. So this is what we’ve come to, huh, Internet? This is the film we want to fight over? Earlier this year, a French film titled Mignonnes, translated to Cuties, premiered at the Sundance Film Festival to a general round of reviews best summarized as “That was fine.” Directed by first-time director Maïmouna Doucouré, the film tackles the way websites like TikTok and Twitter, along with a weird cultural obsession with things like tween beauty pageants and daddy-daughter dances has sexualized the idea of pre-adolescents while ideas of faith and morality are replaced by traditions. The film was bought by Netflix and planned for a small release later in the year. However, as is par for the course with the know-nothing Internet, an alt-right campaign seized on the film and mislabeled its message as “a pedophile’s dream,” – you know, without having seen the film or observed a single clip. Now, this isn’t the first time alt-right trolls have targeted Netflix with slanderous accusations and deliberately false accounts. They’ve been doing that for years, especially after former President Barack Obama signed a production deal with the streaming service. QAnon’s gotta QAnon. But normally, their fake claims and calls to #CancelNetflix fail miserably. Yet something strange happened. You see, unlike those previous false accusations, the claims against Cuties were picked up on a national level. Film pundits commented on it in all forms, from The New Yorker to Ben Shapiro. The alt-right and QAnon managed to get their claims heard by the Religious Right, who inexplicably found allies in the Far Left, creating the perfect storm of paranoia, policing, censorship, and holier-than-thou condemnation.

Suddenly there was a whole storm surrounding a film that only a handful of film snobs in Colorado had seen, and who were basing their criticisms on lies mainly targeted at a film by a Black Muslim French woman, mostly for those very reasons. None of this was helped by a (perhaps intentionally) bad poster that emphasized the beauty pageant-esque skimpy outfits (which, again, are no worse than we allowed with Honey Boo Boo less than a decade ago) – a poster that was rightfully criticized and subsequently removed. The controversy and righteous uproar could have and should have ended there, but that’s not the optimistic timeline we live in. And now Laura Ingraham is ranting about it on her television show, Tulsi Gabbard is claiming it is openly in league with sex trafficking circles or something (the tweet was incomprehensible, as are most of her comments), and Congress is discussing investigating it (specifically, Tom Cotton and Ted Cruz). Somehow this little film from France that’s basically a 90 minute version of the ending of Little Miss Sunshine, or that little sister in Mean Girls, has become a hot button issue that has not only surpassed the Joker Dialogues from last October, but has now become more important to Americans than Covid-19, climate change, and police brutality – perhaps combined. Glad to see we have our priorities straight, as always. But what about the film itself? Once one cuts through all the bullsh*t, there are three important questions we have to ask ourselves: is the film actually offensive, is it worth the controversy, and is it any good? And to answer those questions, I say: no, hell no, and kinda?

But I’m getting ahead of myself. What is Cuties actually about? You know, without all the lies and exaggerations. Well, the film focuses on eleven-year-old Amy Diop (Fathia Youssouf), a lonely Senegalese immigrant living with her mother, brothers, and aunt in a poor neighborhood in France. Amy’s dealing with a lot of stress – beyond her own coming of age, her mother Mariam (Maïmouna Gueye) is slowly breaking down due to the revelation that her husband has taken a second wife, her highly religious aunt (Mbissine Therese Diop) forces her to embrace the strictist tenets of Islam, and she’s struggling to fit in at school. However, things change when Amy becomes acquainted with Angelica (Médina El Aidi-Azouni), a popular neighbor who wears the hippest clothes, knows the hippest slang, and is part of the coolest clique in sixth grade: the Cuties. Consisting of Angelica, Coumba (Esther Gohourou), Jess (Ilanha Cami-Goursolas), and Yasmine (Myriam Hamma), the Cuties are a dance troupe looking to find success at an upcoming dance contest against far-older performers. Desperate to fit in, Amy takes over as choreographer for the troupe, and starts incorporating any moves she can learn from her stolen phone – including twerking and other risqué moves from popular music videos. As Amy’s popularity begins to rise, she begins to feel herself torn between her friends, her family, her religion, and her own sense of self and development.

Incidentally, the driving force of this film has nothing to do with hyper-sexualization or controversy or anything of the sort. Cuties is about a young girl caught in the middle while trying to integrate into Western society. Her struggle is made clear in the early moments of the film, when she is at the mosque listening to a lesson about how men are automatically holier than women, that scantily clad women will automatically go to Hell, and that because of the very nature of their bodies, women will always struggle to get into Heaven. That’s a lot for a young girl to take in during a delicate time of development in her life, and with the odds so stacked against her, it’s no wonder Amy feels driven to rebel. Now, the film does an excellent job making it clear that her form of rebellion isn’t the answer, but what’s fascinating is the fact that her form of rebellion comes as a form of integration into Western culture. The dance moves she picks up may become more sexual over time (from the start, the film makes it clear that they are all talented dancers), but they aren’t moves she makes up on her own – they are taught to her by Western music videos and television.

The reason these girls get by performing these moves as long as they do is because Western society has already embraced phenomenons like Dance Moms – which, despite its own controversy, was defended nearly a decade ago when its tween stars performed a strip tease. Hell, the film goes as far as to take the common stereotype of Black African women straightening their hair to integrate by portraying Amy as singing off her locks with an iron just to look like Angelica. What Cuties does well is capture the irony and hypocrisy of the “civilized world” as they attempt to force assimilation upon immigrants. The same countries that mock third world nations as backwards and “interested in child brides” (an actual belief shared amongst nationalists about several Middle Eastern and African countries) are willing to turn a blind eye towards such weird-ass beliefs as cotillion balls, beauty pageants, and shows and performances like Dance Moms and TikTok. After all, nobody says a word about the fact that it’s technically legal in many regions of the American South for a 14-year-old to get married to a full-fledged adult – where’s the controversy in that? In the end, the film portrays the best course of action in life as balance, for both mother and daughter – traditionalist religion will drive one to rebel, yet absolute faith and hedonism is freaky and dangerous. The narrow path between faith and freedom is what allows a child to grow up healthy and pure.

Of course, we do have to talk about the film’s portrayal of hyper-sexualization, peer pressure, and the way it affects children, because ultimately, that’s the point of the film. And for the most part, Doucouré tackles these subjects respectfully and wisely. As mentioned before, the film makes it clear in the opening that telling a young child that she is already at a disadvantage due to her gender and her body has potentially damned her to Hell is certainly not a healthy way of approaching things. But the film is equally clear that the other end of the spectrum – leaning into society’s sexualization of women, especially younger women, is just as dangerous for her development. In a lot of ways, the film plays as a companion piece to Mean Girls – it’s about a young girl who moves from Africa and leans into stereotypes and sexualization as a means of fitting in with a clique of delinquents. At least this time the lead character is actually Black. Cuties asks sharp, important questions about how we as a society handle the fetishization of women and the effect this has on young girls. When we see a young girl in a crop top – something I’ve seen out in the real world far too often for my own comfort – the question clearly shouldn’t be “Why are these girls dressing like that?” The question needs to be, “Why are we allowing designers to make clothes like that for young girls?” After all, before the girls come to the stage to perform their sexualized final routine, the moves aren’t completely out of the norm from the rest of the contest – the shock here is that the performers are 11 instead of 16. Shouldn’t this audience realize that this is just the natural progression of things?

As for the routines themselves, or the portrayal of sexuality in the hands of these young girls, the filmmakers are smart to walk a narrow line in their portrayals. As shocking as the dance moves may be, it’s honestly no worse than anything you’d see in the average TikTok, nor are the behaviors any worse than you’d see in an episode of Degrassi. In fact, it’s basically the point that the dance performances are drawn directly from famous TikToks and music videos. And when we reach the final routine – the most explicit of the bunch, it is clearly not performed in front of a real crowd, keeping the real-life girls safe, and utilizing quick cuts to avoid lingering without losing its shocking impact. Meanwhile, while the dialogue and actions the girls take may scandalize those who wish to lie about their own pasts or believe women are magically more innocent than boys, but I for one applaud the film for actively portraying the way middle schoolers actually talk. It’s been done before in films like Good Boys or Stand By Me, but it’s rare to see girls engaging in the same dialogues and behavior. Middle school is the age when we all start learning about sex, growing into adolescence, and discover the joys of cursing. It makes sense that film would reflect that. And the film’s pretty clear that the behavior in question needs to be frowned upon. At no point do characters endorse the behaviors they witness – older boys the girls try to flirt with immediately shut down their advances, and despite their hypocrisies, the crowd does seem horrified at the girls’ routine, which they boo vigorously. The film is clear that it’s not appropriate for a young girl to wear her little brother’s too-small shirt as a crop top, but honestly, the most disturbing moment you’ll witness is a young girl making a makeshift band-aid with her own spit.

But here’s my biggest issue with Cuties: what is this film actually saying? What I mean is, what does it add to the international conversation of hyper-sexualizing children that hasn’t already been said? Little Miss Sunshine already tackled the hypocrisies and sexualizing of children in the nationally accepted beauty pageant scene, Bad Grandpa featured a far-more racy dance (which was featured in trailers, earned big laughs, and got a pass because it was a boy in drag), Mean Girls featured an eight-year-old watching her sister perform a sexually-charged talent show dance and later learns to flash by watching Girls Gone Wild. If Cuties is going to stick its toe in the Waters of Discourse, it actually needs something to say, other than “This is bad.” After all, those films already did so – and quite brilliantly, I might add. Everything Cuties offers up has been said before – perhaps not about a Muslim girl, but still familiar territory nonetheless. It would perhaps be easier to gloss over the obviousness if the jokes and shocks didn’t feel dated in the year 2020. There’s a freak-out over AIDS that feels straight out of an 80s movie, and seems idiotic in a modern day setting. Later, the Cuties hop onto ChatRoulette, which hasn’t been a popular website in over a decade. And in an era where nationalism is on the rise in Europe and the United States, does it really seem likely that the target of bullying for the young Black Muslim immigrant would be…her poorness? Furthermore, the story beats feel cliched – it’s rather obvious that the neighbor girl will become Amy’s first friend within the first few minutes of the film.

Meanwhile, I do have some thoughts on the general tone of the film in ways I haven’t heard in the current discourse. For example, I’ll admit that the camera lingers a bit too long during the dance sequences. It’s never exploitative, and it’s nothing worse than you’d see on TikTok, but it’s impossible to deny it happens. In Doucouré’s defense, I put the blame there squarely on the shoulders of Mathilde Van de Moortel and Stéphane Mazalaigue. But strangely enough, these are the least of my concerns surrounding Cuties’ portrayal of this material. In fact, as weird as this may be to say, it’s actually the manner in which it condemns this behavior that goes too far. Oh, don’t get me wrong, the film absolutely needs to condemn the sexualization of these girls. But it’s hard to watch the sequences without it reading like an over-the-top back to school special. “It’s called ‘twerking,’ and your kids may be doing it.” “Have you talked to your daughter about ‘sexting?’” It starts to resemble those terrible Lifetime movies from the late 80s, the ones where you have one sip of alcohol and kill your best friend in a car accident. Again, the film takes the right approach in condemning this behavior, it’s just that approaching it like a Scared Straight video for parents probably isn’t the best way to go about it. Perhaps this is why Doucouré goes so far off the rails in the third act, and makes the horrifically bad decision to incorporate magical realism. Oh, did I mention that in the third act, there’s a magic dress that predicts Amy’s behavior and choices, and that the decision to dance almost literally kills her mother through magic? Yes, that all happens. It’s rather a waste – after such a strong, powerful set-up, the film botches the ending by overplaying its morality and making some of the worst filmmaking decisions I’ve ever seen.

As for the acting, this film belongs to the children – and that’s not just because the sole adults, Gueye and Diop, are horrifically wasted (in fact, Gueye is so rarely in this film that a late attempt to make her a central character falls confusingly flat). No, the children dominate the screen because they are charismatic, empathetic characters that will draw you into the story and keep you around long after you lose interest. Youssouf is the film’s biggest draw, and she holds herself high with grace and strength. I felt for her character and plight throughout the film, and she will ground you whenever the material becomes to weighty or too outrageous for you. Just as impressive is Médina El Aidi-Azouni as Angelica, who I’m confident will be a major star in the industry one day. Not only is she an impressive dancer (relax, I’m referring to her regular krunking moves, not the dance from the end of the film), but she has a charming screen presence. It’s clear why Amy would want a friend like Angelica, and you can see both the joy for life and the hidden painful private life in every glimpse of El Aidi-Azouni’s face. I can’t tell you much about the other characters, other than Gohourou’s Coumba is an incredible dancer with a strong sense of comedic timing, Cami-Goursolas’ Jess is supposed to be the b*tchy one, and does so well, and Hamma’s Yasmine is…fine? She doesn’t have much to do, but she does it well. Oh, and a special shout out to Demba Diaw’s Ïsmael, who puts his own unique spin on the hilarious little brother, and I thought he really added to the ensemble.

So what’s the final verdict on Cuties? Uh, I dunno. It’s fine, I guess. It has a decent amount to say and condemn in modern society, and at times it does so in refreshingly brisk, fun ways. There’s a part of it that dares the audience to be shocked, and yet weirdly (or perhaps mercifully) never goes beyond the average episode of Degrassi. I really don’t understand the level of controversy surrounding this film. Perhaps most Americans are simply pissed that it dares to posit a world in which a tween boy actually suffers consequences for sexually harassing a girl based on her outfit. Or perhaps they don’t want to address their own complicity – let’s not forget how popular Toddlers and Tiaras was. I don’t know. All I know is that these are serious issues, and the anger we feel about them should be directed at actual threats and dangers, not dumb films that preach to the choir. How about instead of holding Congressional hearings over a harmless film, Congress investigates actual threats to human trafficking and hyper sexualization – you know, figures who took full advantage of their power positions at Miss Teen USA, or the release of 8800 unaccompanied children along the border despite humanitarian protections, or the thousands of unprosecuted claims of sexual assault inside detention camps as early as last year? Because frankly, if there’s anything worth being angry at Cuties about, it’s the fact that it took a perfectly decent film about the ills of modern day society and ruined it with a terrible third act and some unnecessary magical realism.

B-

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