‘Cuties’ isn’t what I expected. It’s a powerful portrait of female rage

Médina El Aidi-Azouni, left, and Fathia Youssouf in a scene from “Cuties.” (Netflix) Well, I

Médina El Aidi-Azouni, left, and Fathia Youssouf in a scene from "Cuties." <span class="copyright">(Netflix)</span>
Médina El Aidi-Azouni, left, and Fathia Youssouf in a scene from “Cuties.” (Netflix)

Well, I finally watched that movie everyone is talking about.

No, not “Tenet,” which did not manage to single-handedly revive the film industry from its pandemic-induced coma in a week. I watched “Cuties,” Maïmouna Doucouré’s film about an 11-year-old Senegalese immigrant in France who rebels against her conservative culture by hurling herself into certain extremities of the modern world — social media and sexually provocative dancing — only to find them just as oppressive.

You know, the pedophile movie.

I’m not trying to be flip about pedophilia — the sexual abuse and exploitation of children are real and never funny.

It’s also absolutely not the way any sane person would categorize this movie.

In the essentials, “Cuties” is a fairly basic and recognizable story: troubled girl attempts to find herself by gaining the acceptance of others and winning a dance contest. Unfortunately, Netflix, which picked up the film after its well-received Sundance premiere, marketed it with a poster that made many people deeply and righteously upset. The image especially — of four 11-year-old girls in full makeup, scanty costumes and come-hither expressions — was shocking even in the modern “Dance Moms”/”Toddlers and Tiaras” context.

The image was also, as everyone who had actually seen “Cuties” rushed to point out, misrepresentative of the film and directly antithetical to its message.

Netflix apologized and changed its marketing language and image but alas, it was too late. A picture is worth a thousand words, especially (Dare I say it?) in an election year, and “Cuties” found itself accused in many quarters of exploiting girls and courting pedophiles. #CancelNetflix trended, Ted Cruz weighed in, Hollywood was reviled, Doucouré was threatened, QAnon was invoked and a veritable flotilla of culture-war think pieces were launched.

In America, that is. In other parts of the world, including France and Senegal, the movie premiered to praise for its portrayal of a child pulled between two cultures. No one would think to categorize it as pedophilic or pornographic because that would be crazy. That would be culturally embarrassing.

Choking on the fumes of the Bobcat fire and the general conflagration of California which many, including the president, deny has anything to do with climate change; fuming myself over the existence of Americans who still refuse to wear masks and a postmaster general who seems intent on slowing down the mail, I was really hoping that once Netflix took responsibility for its “inappropriate artwork,” the completely ridiculous “Cuties” scandal would just “fade away,” like the coronavirus of Trump’s dreams.

Then my 13-year-old daughter bounced into my office, vibrating with outrage over this movie about, she had said, 11-year-olds twerking.

“Wait a minute,” I said. “I don’t think that’s quite fair. Have you actually seen it?”

“No,” she said. “Have you?”

Hoisted by my own petard. Never comfortable.

So I watched “Cuties,” and I was surprised by what I saw: an imperfect but insightful portrait of a girl beset by so many opposing forces — physical, cultural, emotional — that she all but explodes.

I had expected a fairly benign exploration of cultural differences and the seductions of clique culture — “Never Have I Ever” meets “Mean Girls.” What I found was a film about rage. That sudden, inchoate, unidentifiable female fury that rises in so many girls, often self-destructively, when they realize that certain rules are not about protecting them but controlling them.

“Cuties” is not about a girl coming to terms with her sexuality; sexuality doesn’t factor into any of her actions. It’s about a girl coming to terms with the nature of power and her immediate, and potentially lifelong, lack of it.

I don’t want to spoil the story, but given all the sweeping statements it is important to remember that God is in the details, so some attention to the details of what is a small, deeply personal film should be paid.

Amy (Fathia Youssouf, who is astounding), her mother Mariam (Maïmouna Gueye) and her two younger siblings are all conservative Muslims just arrived from Senegal. We meet them as they are settling into their new tiny public housing apartment; Amy’s father, who is never named nor seen, will be arriving soon. There is an argument over an empty bedroom, which Amy wants but is denied, as Mariam hustles her to gender-segregated worship services. There, she and the other women are told the female body is sinful and purity is the only hope of salvation.

So there’s that.

On her way back to the apartment, Amy, her head still covered, passes the building’s laundry room where she sees a young girl in leggings and a crop top dancing to pop music as she alternately tends to the wash and irons her long dark hair. At school, she sees the girl, Angelica (Médina El Aidi-Azouni), again — this time as the leader of a quartet of friends who are outspoken, high-spirited and mischievous to the point of being super-irritating. Amy, tasked with minding her younger brother while doing the family shopping, follows them and discovers they are part of a dance group, with their sights set on making it to the finals of a local competition. They are a grubby, mouthy and mercurial group, but Amy is awestruck by what she sees as their fearlessness.

So there’s that too.

Amy’s life, by contrast, hums with fear. Her father is absent, her mother anxious, and soon Amy discovers why. Hiding beneath her mother’s bed, she learns her father has found a new wife, whom he will be installing, alongside Mariam, into that empty bedroom. In one of the most beautifully shot scenes of any movie ever, Amy listens as her mother is forced to cheerfully give various people what custom dictates is happy news, only to break down and sob in between calls.

Childhood always demands its moment of reckoning, when we realize the image we have of our parents, our family, is not quite true. It is always jarring, sometimes traumatic and occasionally, as it is here, completely shattering. For Amy — and indeed for any woman who has ever realized that at least some portions of her mother’s strength rises from endurance of a life that has been forced upon her — this scene is completely shattering.

Betrayed by her faith and her family, unable to discuss her outrage with anyone, it is only natural that Amy would see Angelica’s world as a tempting alternative.

Which means she has to get into that dance group, the Cuties of the film’s title. A fortuitous (and to be honest, narratively ridiculous) opportunity to swipe her uncle’s smartphone provides an entrée. She tapes and learns the group’s dance moves and so is able to fill in when one of the girls falls out with the others. While her mother lives a double life of sorrow and acceptance, Amy discovers social media and the heady excitement of being “liked” for images she posts. And when she sees the kind of dancing that gets young women more followers and attention, she masters those sexually suggestive moves and convinces the Cuties to incorporate them into their routine.

Watching the girls learn to twerk is funny at first because they are very bad at it. Just as they clearly do not know anything at all about sex and very little about their own bodies (if nothing else, “Cuties” is a cry for universal sex education), they are oblivious to the meaning of the moves; the other girls accept Amy’s suggestions because their main competition is a group of older girls, and they really want to win.

But as the day of her father’s return draws near, and she is forced to prepare for a wedding that will deeply wound her mother and family, Amy throws herself into her new persona with a desperation that is painful to watch. Like Shakers courting the Holy Spirit through ecstatic movement, she channels her growing rage into perfecting the dance, winning the competition and gaining some sort of power. Any sort of power.

In the world she glimpses online, she sees escape from the inevitability of unhappy marriage and motherhood. But she is too young to understand that this is not the freedom she seeks; she is simply exchanging one set of dictates and consequences — one system of control over her body and its expression — for another.

Lacking that understanding, Amy becomes reckless, self-destructive and, increasingly, physically violent. Like every child incapable of articulating what they are feeling, she acts out physically. The twerking is not a director-supported form of defiance; it’s a form of nervous breakdown.

And the real climax of the film is not the performance of the suggestive dance at the finals (to which the onscreen audience reacts with appropriate shock and disapproval) but the extreme series of actions Amy takes to make sure she is part of it, including endangering the life of another girl — culminating in the moment onstage when Amy finally, suddenly, realizes what she is doing, what she has already done. And that it’s not who she wants to be.

So yes, 11-year-old girls twerk in “Cuties,” and there is a scene in which they demonstrate how fully they have mastered that skill, which is uncomfortable to watch. Perhaps it goes on too long. But if the audience doesn’t get to see what Amy thinks she sees — a confident attempt to claim the power of modern womanhood — then the perils of her journey would be less believable and less, well, perilous.

Would the outrage have been lessened if the characters were 13 or 15? Maybe, but that in itself is troubling — adolescence is a long and diverse experience, with as many different entry points as there are children. And as Doucouré has said, she was prompted to make the film by a performance by actual 11-year-old girls — who are, no matter how many rules we make or parental guards we install, susceptible to the more exploitative aspects of the digital age.

Far more troubling, however, is the attempt to demonize as pedophilia a film about female anger and the struggles with identity and power that so many girls and young women face. At no point in the film are any of the girls exuding sex; they are all, to varying degrees, simply trying to exert some control with the tools society encourages young women to use.

Perhaps that’s the source of all the outrage: a female director turning a mirror on a few facts that some are not willing to face.

Assuming, of course, that they’ve bothered to watch the movie.

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