It’s the infamous tween twerking movie that sparked visceral online hatred and a rash of Netflix cancellations.
Yet this wasn’t made by the streaming giant or Hollywood. Mais Non! It is a French film (translation: Mignonnes) directed by newcomer Maïmouna Doucouré, a glamorous Parisian born to Senegalese immigrants. Netflix merely bought the world rights then provoked outrage with a tacky promotional poster.
Alas, controversy is something the French do well. While a Texas grand jury indicted the media platform for “lewd visual material”, France shortlisted it for the international feature film category at the 2021 Oscars.
Fast forward to the plot
It explores the world of 11-year-old Amy (pronounced Ah-me), who has moved to Paris from Senegal with her conservative Muslim mother. Dad is due to join them accompanied by a new second bride. Hectored by elders preaching that pious women must obey their husbands, her mother accepts the situation then beats and cries herself to sleep at night.
Between prayer meetings and domestic chores, Amy sees another girl, Angelica, in her apartment block, dancing, ironing her hair. They’re the same age, yet she struts through the school gates dressed for the strip club. Amy stalks Angelica’s dance crew, the Cuties, who initially turn their noses up at her uncool clothing before letting her into their group as they prep for a talent show.
Cue an adoption of snarling, aggressive personas. The girls fight like they’re in a prison yard and are sex-obsessed, but it’s an act – when one girl finds a condom, she thinks it’s a balloon.
Inspired by videos she’s seen on a stolen mobile phone, Amy begins teaching the girls more suggestive dance routines.
The drama unfolds. . . light-fingered Amy shoves a victim into the Seine, stabs a boy with a pencil for patting her bottom and callously continues eating dinner after her exhausted mother drops unconscious to the floor. She posts nude selfies online, which crosses an arbitrary line with her classmates.
Amy’s internalized shame, along with her rage, is understandable in the context of conflicting expectations from her family’s patriarchal culture and her social milieu. In her new world, self-worth is dependent on male attention and Instagram likes.
Luckily, on the day of the dance contest (on the same day as her unseen father’s wedding, naturally) she sees the error of her ways mid-twerk. In a dreamlike blur, she races home to her mother, who finally silences the community elder. Later, we see Amy stride out in trendy but age-appropriate Western clothes to play with a skipping rope.
For the thirtysomething Doucouré – who grew up in a polygamous household – Cuties is a personal coming-of-age tale. Despite the demonization of social media, neglected pre-teens engaged in brash sexualized behaviour before smartphones were invented.
It’s a vibrant, intelligent film, which articulates the social commentary of its era. The dance crew are not aspirational. Men and boys are either repulsed or irritated by the group. When her adult cousin confronts Amy for thieving his phone, she attempts a striptease. Horrified, he shoves her.
Clearly, something has been lost in translation. There are arguably some gratuitous dance moves, while the weird dream logic scenes land uncomfortably. Some will argue that by working with such a young cast, Doucouré has done the very thing she condemns.
Then there’s that final scene, where Amy rejects both peer pressure and her family’s traditional culture. After all we’ve seen, are we meant to be reassured? It’s a rushed end to a brutally honest portrayal of pre-teen life.