There is an urgent need in our world for the development of empathy and critical thinking, especially when it comes to social media. Our information now comes to us in tweet-sized skimmable headlines, often without requiring us to think too deeply about the greater issues at hand before we click the “share” or “like” button and move on. Clickbait abounds, conspiracy theories thrive, and “cancel culture” has become commonplace. What this Internet-based culture of immediacy tends to promote is knee-jerk reactions, often exacerbated by ideological alliances which generate simplistic either/or dichotomies. To some degree, this makes sense—it’s much easier and quicker to place something or someone into an already-known category—good/bad, liberal/conservative, etc.—in order to celebrate or condemn it than it is to actually read/listen/receive the art/idea/person in question and attempt to understand it/them. Patient contemplation and careful reading are difficult practices not often granted public rewards.
This is partially why I find cinema so important to our present-day discourse: it allows us to empathetically enter into another’s world, to imaginatively occupy various subjective positions, to have a sense of temporary immersion or participation in someone else’s value system and experience, to feel how they feel, and thus perhaps to have our own imaginations, alliances, and praxis be reoriented for the better. We are made to slow down, take a break from the everyday world, and (at least when theaters were open) turn off our electronic devices in order to truly pay attention the cinematic world before us. And as both philosopher Simone Weil and Sister Sarah Joan from Lady Bird rightly attest, love and attention can be the same thing. How we pay attention may be indicative of whether and how we love.
Maïmouna Doucouré’s attentive, empathetic, and daring feature-length debut Cuties (Mignonnes) directly engages with these cultural concerns of social media and getting attention, both within its diegetic world as well as in the extra-diegetic backlash to the film’s deeply problematic marketing from its distributor, Netflix. The coming-of-age film follows Amy (Fathia Youssouf), an 11-year-old Senegalese immigrant living in the banlieues of Paris with her mother, Mariam (Maïmouna Gueye), and her little siblings. As the family holds to very traditional religious beliefs, Amy finds herself caught between numerous worlds: between Senegal and France, between conservative religion and liberal secularism, between being a child and an adult. As she quietly observes the complex world around her, Amy longs for a sense of belonging and identity. She tries to find it in a group of fellow tween girls led by Angelica (Medina El Aidi), a fiery queen bee who lives in Amy’s housing project. The spunky clique spends much of their time practicing dances and posting them to social media, all in preparation for a local amateur dance contest. The girls are immature and mean, bullying one girl out of the group as they try to act more grown up than they really are by wearing tight and revealing clothing or using crass language to make themselves sound “older.” As Amy becomes more aware of her own body and burgeoning sexuality, she finds herself less sure of her family’s traditions and drawn further into both the Cuties’s orbit and the influential online world.
Doucouré employs a distinctly cinematic language to address the concerns of growing up in the age of social media. The camera often follows Amy closely while respecting her interiority (unlike many coming-of-age films about teen girls, there are conspicuously no voiceovers), granting her a sense of autonomy even as it remains nearby like a watchful guardian. The distinctive and vivid mise-en-scene in conjunction with the cinematography blurs the lines between social realism and expressionism, but all of it is imbued with a sense of empathy. From the way Cuties is structured, it’s clear that Doucouré wants us to care deeply about these characters, especially about the ways they are treated by society and how they in turn treat others. In many respects, Cuties is a well-crafted, ambitious debut from a clearly talented director, and I’m eager to see what Doucouré creates in the future.
This is not to say that Cuties is beyond criticism. The story is so primarily concerned with Amy that the fellow Cuties are not really given distinctive personalities beyond being the brazen girls Amy desires to emulate. Also, there are numerous sequences which are discomforting precisely because they walk the line between condemnation and representation. Two montage sequences in particular—one where Amy teaches the girls how to twerk after learning about it online, another where the girls film themselves provocatively dancing on a staircase in order to later post it on social media—are often troubling in the camera’s lingering on the girls’ bodies. It makes us aware of our complicity as we watch the girls dance, and that should unnerve us. And the various disturbing behaviors Amy finds herself enacting, such as attempting to film a boy in the school bathroom or posting a picture of her genitalia online (to be clear, nothing explicit is ever shown), should disturb us as viewers. The film never endorses such behaviors, but it does make us aware that these behaviors happen; and they do…all the time. In this sense, Cuties is a universal story, as there are Amys currently all over the world, young people trying to navigate what is right and wrong while mainly being guided by what they find online. What is set in a Parisian immigrant neighborhood is not so different from the local American elementary or middle school. I say this as an observation, not as some sort of prudish reproof nor as an endorsement—it simply is the world we live in today, and Cuties portrays that world with a sense of raw authenticity and thoughtful care.
Ultimately, Cuties sharply critiques both conservative religious patriarchal systems which tend to emphasize women’s modesty and submission and the liberal “whatever goes” sexualization of women in general, and young girls in particular. In this regard, one of the film’s faults may be its didacticism. From the start, it is absolutely clear on what the film is critiquing—i.e., the unhealthy and exploitative sexualization of preadolescent girls—which is ironically also what its loudest detractors are decrying in their own blinkered way. And so the film’s finale at a dance contest is not altogether surprising, and even feels a bit unearned. Still, the final shot is one of empowerment and hope imbued with a bit of the fantastical, not unlike a similar film, and one of my personal favorites: Anna Rose Holmer’s masterpiece, The Fits.
What becomes strikingly obvious both within Cuties‘s diegetic conflicts and in the real-world backlash is the need for wise mentors. In the film, the adults who are supposed to be guiding Amy into adulthood are often completely oblivious to her whereabouts and actions, and totally out of touch with the present-day issues she faces. Mariam in particular seems too overwhelmed by her own personal struggles with her husband’s new wife (a complicated situation, to be sure) to offer any real assistance, thus leaving Amy to basically fend for herself. But Mariam is not alone; this phenomenon is happening outside of the film too. Many adults who are supposed to model virtuous character are the same adults so busy posting grammatically-incorrect trollish outrage on social media in order to boycott a Netflix-distributed movie that they aren’t able to see the sophomoric example they are setting for others. Tragically, as we’ve seen evidenced all too frequently, growing in chronological age does not correlate to growing in maturity. Good reasoning and research skills, logical acuity, and empathetic listening—in short, practical wisdom (phronesis)—are in short supply.
So, should you watch the film? I can’t answer that for you. Use wisdom and discernment to decide for yourself. What I can say is that Cuties, like all good movies, may generate empathy for a person or community beyond our own limited real-life experience precisely through the immersive audio-visual form. And in our present era of endless divisions, we need all the empathy we can get.
IMDB Listing: https://www.imdb.com/title/tt9196192/