Amy is an 11-year-old Senegalese immigrant living in a Parisian apartment with a conservative mother, a strict auntie, and several siblings who await their father’s return with a second wife in tow. Her life is so different compared to the other girls at school, so seemingly easy with their bodies, dancing freely, hardly a care in the world. In Amy’s home, money is scarce, modesty is valued, and things are complicated.
Like pretty much every kid ever, Amy just wants to fit in. “The cuties” are a dance troupe at school that she’d very much like to belong to. They’re the cool kids of course, with maybe just a smidge of mean girls. They’re irresistible. Amy (Fathia Youssouf) is so desperate to belong she does whatever it takes: her baby brother’s tshirt is a crop top on her. A stolen cell phone becomes her portal to a world of gyrating, scantily clad girls, simulating sex and calling it dancing. She learns from them, in secret. And when the cuties have a sudden opening, she’s more than ready to step in.
You may have heard that Netflix has caught some major heat over this film, mostly from people who hadn’t seen it. They’ve called for Netflix to remove the title from its streaming platform, and threatened mass unsubscribing if they don’t. Their complaint: the movie hyper-sexualizes young girls. Is it valid?
Sure it is. But this is exactly the point film maker Maïmouna Doucouré is trying to make. Her film is a social commentary about the pressure young girls face not just from social media, but absolutely from social media, which they are exposed to from very young ages. And we are all in some way contributing to a culture that only finds value in females that can be sexualized, treating all others as if they’re invisible. If a girl wants to be seen, and has access to a tablet or a smartphone or peers, she won’t have failed to notice what her (lack of) options are.
Is it fair or necessary to sexualize these young actresses in order to prove a point? To be honest, I sort of hate putting kids in show business altogether. No matter how carefully a director isolates mature themes from the children on set, kids are notorious sponges and almost always absorb more than we think. Child actor turned director Sarah Polley was in the news this week reflecting on having to kiss a man twice her age on the set of a TV show when she was 13. A show Canada prided itself on for its wholesome family viewing. It’s a valid concern, even if it doesn’t have an easy answer.
If her film has inspired conversation, then Maïmouna Doucouré has done her job. You can’t move the needle if you don’t ask the hard questions. So I don’t think that muzzling Netflix or forcing censorship on an emerging female director flexing her voice for the first time is the answer. I know that Doucouré hasn’t included these scenes to entertain us; they are there to provoke discomfort. So let that be the starting point for the discussion that needs to be had. Let’s talk about why this makes us uncomfortable, and what we can do so this isn’t Amy’s story anymore. So the next time someone writes a movie about a girl like Amy, it won’t be about how the only currency she has is her body.