A film about a handful of lasciviously dancing schoolgirls – CUTIES started as a scandal at Netflix from the moment the poster was published. But how justified is the outrage? We reveal more about this in our review.
OT: Mignonnes (FR 2020)
Eleven-year-old Amy (Fathia Youssouf) grows up in a strict Muslim family environment. One day when she meets a clique of young girls at her new school, she is immediately fascinated. They belong to a self-founded dance group that, with its lascivious movements and skimpy outfits, has nothing to do with Amy’s conservative family traditions. She decides to join the others and thereby rebel against her family to a certain extent. But it’s not just at home that Amy quickly faces headwinds.
What Disney+ has its “Mulan” is what Netflix has its “Cuties” – at least in terms of global perception as a scandal. While it feels like new waves of outrage are rising every day about Niki Caro’s live-action reinterpretation of the China-centric Disney classic, so that we no longer know what the most reprehensible thing about the $200 million prestige project is, the problem with “Cuties” is pretty easy to solve exactly: It all started with a poster that shows the eleven-year-old main character and her dancing friends, scantily dressed and in lascivious poses. Now this scene actually occurs in the film, but you have to know the exact context in order to be able to evaluate it morally. Of course, this is only possible if you have already seen the film – this motif is suitable as advertising material for a film that is actually about a young girl swimming her way out of her traditional family values and finding fake support in a sexy dance combo therefore not because the classification is missing. It’s just there – a snapshot. And one that is at least questionable without any context. This also applies to the film, which the director and author Maïmouna Doucouré (short film “Maman(s)”) definitely staged with a clearly recognizable narrative motivation – the accusation that is haunting social networks that “Cuties” is child pornography So that’s nonsense. But her style is definitely provocative and unfortunately the script is not always precise enough to clearly show the provocation as such. A difficult matter.
Eleven-year-old Amy (Fathia Youssouf) grows up in a strict Muslim family environment.
If you had to name spiritual relatives of “Cuties”, the first films that would come to mind would be films like “Kick it like Beckham” or, to a certain extent, the already mentioned “Mulan”. A young girl defies the strict restrictions of religion and origin; sometimes within classic feel-good conventions, other times in the grand fairytale style. The goal of these trips is always female self-determination – that’s no different in “Cuties”. Very early on, Maïmouna Doucouré clearly indicates the world in which protagonist Amy grows up. When the viewer comes into contact with her and her family for the first time, there is talk of religious punishment, which as a woman you can only avoid by behaving modestly. Hard stuff, which, in combination with the observation that the faith has no advantages but only disadvantages for the main character, almost takes on the position of an antagonist – Islam against an innocent girl, so to speak; It’s not subtle. But the director legitimizes this impression by telling the story entirely from the eleven-year-old’s perspective. And it goes without saying that the very present things in their reality do not begin to perceive things in such a differentiated way as the viewer can from a safe (analytical) distance. So the world created by Doucouré may seem radical and therefore sometimes clumsy, but in the end Consequently, she is just as confusing and contradictory as Amy perceived.
“Maïmouna Doucouré’s style is definitely provocative and unfortunately the script is not always precise enough to clearly show the provocation as such. A difficult matter.”
As the exact opposite of the very strict, demure conventions in Amy’s Muslim environment, the open-hearted dance group naturally works excellently as the object of her desire. The fact that the girls are all portrayed as very extroverted and physical is only understandable as a consistent counter-proposal to Amy wearing a headscarf. In addition, the behavior of the three adolescent women appears to be strongly influenced by external influences. The combo’s dance steps are made up of various moves from popular hip-hop and RnB music videos – and as long as ambiguous video clips like those for Nikki Minaj’s “Anaconda” are freely accessible everywhere, it’s no surprise that young girls get their dance inspiration from them get there. This impression is supported by a plastic-like imagery. The bright lighting creates a cheap soap aesthetic, the strong contrasts look like those same music videos – or like any film by Bora Dagtekin. “Cuties” is not a beautiful film, but rather extremely strenuous from a purely visual perspective. Cameraman Yann Maritaud (“Train station”) the camera never stops. When he pursues his young protagonist from behind, memories of Darren Aronofsky’s favorite perspective of the back of his head as his characters rush away sometimes come to mind. Through his lens, everything in Amy’s life seems like a blur. And over the course of the 96 minutes, the girl gets more and more into it, until in the end all personality has to give way to pure sexualization.
Amy and Angelica (Médina El Aidi-Azouni) become close friends.
The fact that Maïmouna Doucouré works with all of these extreme stylistic devices in order to transfer the core problem of a body-obsessed world, in which even small children are dragged onto the stage of beauty pageants and teenage girls have to pose provocatively for catalog swimwear, to film perception is provocative, However, it does not miss its goal of confronting the viewer with this sick (entertainment) world. It is questionable, however, whether the director could not have presented her concerns in an equally memorable way without having to go to such great lengths. Does Yann Maritaud really have to film the underage actresses in close-up through the spread legs? Do the close-ups of girls’ wiggling butts really have to be so long and so prominent in the picture? And to what extent is the feeling of being uncomfortable still intended by the filmmakers or is it simply a reaction to the fact that they have simply gone overboard with their illustration of social injustices? Whenever “Cuties” shows more than is necessary to convey the message forcefully, the shots slide into an end in themselves – and the film thus becomes embroiled in its understandable, if overcooked, scandal. With her film, Maïmouna Doucouré denounces exactly what many online critics accuse the film itself of: the exploitation of children and their bodies. But she also does exactly what she says you’re not allowed to do. A (no doubt fascinating) contradiction.
“Whenever “Cuties” shows more than is necessary to convey the message forcefully, the shots slide into an end in themselves – and the film thus becomes part of its understandable, if overcooked, scandal.”
And one that is nourished by such scenes in which Amy’s actions collide with those around her. If we as viewers perceive her family situation to be as oppressive as it feels for Amy, then the dance group seems all the more attractive and the skeptical adult voices towards the lascivious movements seem like part of the “opposite side”. But when the dance performance used as a poster motif takes place towards the end and the audience in front of the stage (rightly!) boos and shakes their heads, the makers are stirring up the wrong sympathies. At this moment you can no longer be on Amy’s side, because the form of the dance presented here is simply not acceptable for an eleven-year-old. The film suggests, however, that those who don’t cheer for the girls are part of the problem. What is missing is the gray area. Because of course every girl in the world should be able to freely decide about herself and her body. But between “Veil yourself!” and “Dance half-naked like a stripper!” there are also many variations that suit all ages.
Conclusion: Is the “Cuties” scandal appropriate or not? The answer: no. The director relies on a provocative style that she uses to draw attention to undesirable social developments. But it also uses it in such a way that it does exactly what it actually wants to warn against.
“Cuties” is now available to stream on Netflix.