There's been a lot of controversy surrounding this film, so I'm going to cut to the chase on my opinions, before you invest time in reading:
This film is intelligent. It contains a great deal of symbolism and implied meaning which is conveyed through nuanced filmmaking. If you are watching Cuties because it's a dance movie, you are watching the wrong film. It's not a dance film. It's a comment on our 21st century world and it's primary theme seemingly focuses on the portrayal of women in the mass media, and, more specifically, how it affects the younger generations.
There is no doubt that this film made me uncomfortable at times.
There is no doubt that I appreciated this film ("enjoyed" feels like the wrong word to use in this context).
Cuties centres on Amy (Fathia Youssouf), an eleven-year-old Senegalese immigrant, whose family has just moved into a new home in Paris. Upon exploring the apartment block in which she lives, and starting at school, Amy encounters a group of rebellious young girls, who have a passion for dance. Amy becomes caught between the values of her Muslim family and the lure of befriending this new group. I'm sure you can guess what happens next...
It's important to note, that whilst Amy clearly has close connections with her family members, and in particular, her mum, she is beginning to feel the same isolation from them that many pre-teens and adolescents feel. There are no moments of monologue in this movie. No sweeping scenes of exposition, where Amy unpacks what it's like to be Amy. (Thank goodness). But we know what's going on because of the way that Cuties is shot, and because of the juxtaposition of different scenes. There are a few moments early on, where the young girls that Amy is seeking to befriend, engage in bullying behaviours towards her. They steal her backpack, talk down to her, and even throw a rock at her head. When Amy returns home, and quietly goes into her room following some of these encounters, it becomes clear that the adults in her life are unaware of these difficulties. Likewise, when Amy gets her period for the first time and it leaks through her pants, her aunty laughs. Although this might seem innocent enough, it's hurtful and alienating to Amy, and only pushes her further away from her own family.
It's important to note that Amy's mother isn't absent, and Amy is quite close to her mother. However, Amy's father is currently away from the family, spending time with his soon-to-be second wife. While Amy's mother is putting on a brave face, she is struggling with this change, and Amy hears her mother crying, in between phone calls to happily deliver the news to friends and family members. The positive facade that Amy's mother displays throughout the film, is something that Amy sees right through. In fact, Amy mirrors these same behaviours of concealment, when hiding her school friends, dancing and mid-riff tops from her family members.
Side note: Many viewers have referred to this film as 'anti-Islamic' because of these moments of plot. I disagree with this sentiment. Instead, I think this film represents an eleven-year-old, going through the very healthy process of questioning her faith. The very first shot of Amy at a prayer meeting, has her positioned centre-frame. This occurs before she even discovers her father's second marriage, or at the very least, the way in which it is hard for her mother to cope with, yet she already feels out of place there. Given that she's a soon-to-be teenager, this seems like a very normal and healthy part of her life to question (I sure questioned my family's Irish Catholicism when I was that age...don't tell my mum!).
Writer/director, Maïmouna Doucouré, works hard throughout this film, to remind audience members that the protagonist (and her friends) are still only children. The opening shots show Amy colouring, cutting and arranging a number of pieces of cardboard, into a heart-shape for her mother. Later, one of the cuties, named Coumba, finds a "balloon" in a park, blows it up and puts it down her top like a breast. The other girls recognise this balloon to actually be a condom and react in disgust and outrage, immediately ostracising Coumba. Coumba appeals to them, by saying, "But it isn't my fault that I didn't know what it was". These are very purposeful choices. They make the girls' innocence clear, which makes the juxtaposition of moments such as these, with the provocative dance moves, so intense, uncomfortable and effective.
Obviously, this film is about the representation of women in the mass media and the effect that this has on young girls. The cuties are never seen attending dance classes and (as far as I can remember), don't discuss having attended them in the past. Their knowledge and understanding of dance comes from what they've seen in music videos...which is probably why they dance the way they do. They are literally watching adults shake their booty for the camera and their interpretation is that it is both appropriate and encouraged for them to do the same, if they want to win the upcoming dance competition. How else do you win if you aren't dancing like professionals in music videos? This of course is why the girls are seen twerking and gyrating throughout the film. There are also other references to adults and celebrities who have influenced the pre-teens; at one point, whilst doing each others' hair, one of them says, "You said Kardashian style". They are modelling their own behaviour on what the media is telling them to become. And if you're sitting their thinking, "Not all children are like this. My Sally would never..." then you're wrong. Growing up, I was the nerdiest nerd that ever lived (and I'm bloody proud of it). However, in year 8 Dance at school, my assignment was to analyse the Pussycat Dolls film clip for Don't Cha and create my own dance, in a small group afterwards... Okay, so I was twelve (not eleven), but you can bet your bottom dollar that when I was aiming for that A, I assumed that the Pussycat Dolls were the standard, and thus they made their way into a dance to Vanessa Amorosi's 'Absolutely Everybody'.
The influence of mass media on children is real, and Maïmouna Doucouré highlights its dangerous effects incredibly well in Cuties.
There's been a lot of controversy about the dances. They are uncomfortable moments in the film, there's no denying it. At the beginning of the movie, Doucouré breaks the ice with a lot of dance scenes that are shot from extreme long shots, or shown through the tiny screen of a camera phone, or shot using close ups of the girls' faces. The girls often break the fourth wall whilst dancing, this is likely done to mimic the style of music videos and for their own uploads to social media within the film itself. As Cuties progresses, long shots are replaced with close ups, and although the close ups of their faces are still used, there are also close ups of their waists, bellies, bums, and crotches. This is where I began to squirm in my seat. There were a few points where I actually thought to myself, "Okay, this is not okay anymore". However, this opinion usually dissipated when I realised the purpose. Sometimes this came with the scene that followed, or sometimes there was a reason for the uncomfortable shots, within the context of the scene. The first noticeable time that this change in shot sizes occurs, is when the girls dance for two male security guards. They are trying to get out of trouble, and to prove that they are actually dancers in a competition, they provide a sample. The close-up in this instance, almost feels like a point of view shot. It reminds uncomfortable viewers, that some people (and in this case, some men) really aren't that uncomfortable with these kinds of things, which is probably why the media is able to continue pumping out these damaging images. Later on, whilst the girls are dancing on a train overpass, I had a similar feeling, however the shot that followed, was of many people liking the exact same footage on social media. Although it still made me uncomfortable, I realised that these kinds of shots likely saturate platforms like Instagram, and many users probably continue to scroll. It's a scary thought to have. Finally, I reflected on other dance programs and films that I've watched in recent times. I asked myself, is there a huge difference between the dance numbers in Cuties and the dances in other films. The honest truth is: no. The primary difference is the way these numbers are shot. The general public are seemingly okay with long shots of twerking, but a close up has a completely different effect. Maïmouna Doucouré likely noticed this and wanted to point out the hypocrisy with the world's complicit behaviour in accepting the former, but not the latter. Neither should be okay.
Left: A moment from the G-rated 'Feel the Beat'. Right: The Netflix poster for 'Cuties'.
Did I like this film? Yes. I think it's an incredibly intelligent film. So much is communicated through a shot, or through facial expressions. I love that there's so much underlying meaning, without any monologues or intense exposition. Honestly though, I would not recommend watching this film to most people. If you are ready to analyse and unpack and make inferences, then this is great. If you want to take it at face value though, or watch it whilst you do crossword puzzles or scroll through Facebook, you'll hate it. I guarantee it.
Probably why it's so polarising really.