Cuties: The BRWC Review. By Alif Majeed.
A few years ago, I watched a movie with my cousin and her family about a serial killer who had a thing for children. The killings were mostly happening off-screen, and a lot of it was ambiguous. As the movie progressed, my niece kept asking questions about the film. Questions like what exactly is happening with ‘that uncle’ and the children or where do they go off to etc. To my utter surprise, my cousin was explaining everything in detail to her in an extremely patient and objective way. After the movie got over, I couldn’t help it and ask, “Was that necessary?”. To that she just said, “Of course it is. She needs to understand and be aware of what is going on.”
Cuties is getting a lot of flak for how the protagonists were portrayed and objectified on screen. A lot of it has to do with its unfortunately erroneous marketing campaign. The uneasiness also gets amplified when you realize how young these girls are.
The main character of Cuties is Amy, a Senegalese Muslim, living with her mother and brother in Paris. Her family is waiting in gloom for her father’s impending second wedding while her mother is secretly crumbling, trying to maintain a semblance of outward dignity about the situation. Fascinated by a group of schoolmates who have been practicing privately for a local dance competition, she desperately longs to be part of their gang.
Inspired by the suggestive twerking videos they see online, they misguidedly believe that they should emulate those routines to grab eyeballs and possibly go all the way in the competition. As Amy is slowly succumbing to peer pressure and desperation, she steals a phone to secretly practice the video routines. When the owner catches her with the stolen phone, she takes a compromising picture of herself and posts it online, believing it would get him into trouble. As expected, instead of having the required effect, it makes her a social pariah and gets blocked by not just her friends but also her entire school. All this leads to a mighty explosive climax that shouldn’t be spoiled here.
There is a certain innocence in these children when you see them gawking at the school cuties and even with their awkward attempts at flirting with their much older schoolmates as that’s what they believe they should be doing. They also vaguely know what they do might get them into trouble but are so influenced by what they saw online that they think it is acceptable behavior. Maïmouna Doucouré, the director, also makes it pretty clear of that fact. That maybe it WAS the idea, and we are supposed to be uncomfortable at what we are seeing. Not just what they do on screen. But also why and what influenced them to do it.
At one point, the girls ostracize Amy for posting that dirty picture, as they fear they would be labeled sluts if they continue to hang out with her. It does not even occur that somebody might judge them for all they have been doing so far already.
It causes a throwback memory of all those childhood birthday parties, where one kid inevitably dresses up, and how many parents reacts to it. The child may be living the princess dream and having the time of her life. But she doesn’t realize some of the adults around her have already possibly started to judge her.
Fathia Youssouf is a gem as Amy, and it is hard not to be moved by her incredible performance. From the moment she first comes on screen, to her fascination and longing gazes at the gang’s antics and her awestruck reaction at her neighbors’ using an iron to straighten her hair and her trying to do the same with disastrous results.
In a stunning sequence that shows her state of mind, her mother and omnipresent, all-knowing matriarchal aunt conducts a purge on her to quash her rebellion. In an ultimate act of defiance, the way her dervish dance morphs into an involuntarily twerking dance routine that she has been practicing so hard is an image that sears into your head and stays there for a very long time.
Médina El Aidi-Azouni playing her sympathetic friend Angelique, the group’s de facto leader, also portrays her character with remarkable aplomb. I also genuinely appreciate the bond Amy shared with her mother, played by Maïmouna Gueye. When they finally come to terms with each other and their decisions, it feels earned and not shoehorned for the climax’s sake.
The fact that the movie is making people uneasy is not that surprising. Some scenes in the film genuinely make your skin crawl. But you realize that part of the discomfort you feel watching Cuties also comes from the fact that the kids do not wholly comprehend the consequences their actions may have. It is a movie that needs to be understood and watched, no matter how uncomfortable it makes you feel.
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