In a controversial French drama now on Netflix, an 11-year-old girl from Senegal is torn between tradition and some hot new dance moves.


Rage of innocence: Fathia Youssouf Abdillahi


In its modest way, Maïmouna Doucouré's Cuties is one of the most shocking films of the year. Opening with a scene of innocent, childish horseplay, it then follows our heroine, the eleven-year-old Aminata ‘Amy’ Diop, to a Muslim prayer meeting. There, the female elder reveals that “in hell, there will be many more women than men. That is why we must heed the words of Allah. Where does evil dwell? In the bodies of uncovered women. We must obey our husbands.” Amy, her angelic features enshrouded in a blue, patterned hijab, is the picture of incorruptibility. Then, just as the women get up to leave, she scoops up and pockets a string of prayer beads – or misbaḥah – dropped by one of the attendees. The angel is unmasked. It’s a fleeting moment, but enough to establish that Amy is not a doormat. She, her mother Mariam and her two younger brothers have just moved from Senegal to a French apartment block, awaiting word from Amy’s father. However, Amy’s world could be anywhere on earth and it’s not until her first day at school that Maïmouna Doucouré opens up her canvas to reveal an urban Parisian playground. It’s one of the film’s most inspiring moments when, as the school administrator is sorting Amy out, every child in the yard freezes in mid-play. It’s a premeditated prank, a sort of inverse flash mob which, judging by the expression on Amy’s face, seeds the germ of rebellious possibility.


Doucouré, whose first feature this is, was born in Paris to Senegalese parents, but her main beef is not the sexist dictates of Allah. As Amy finds her feet in this wild, modern wonderland fuelled by peer pressure and social media, the girl obviously wants to fit in. And as she shakes off the shackles of her African upbringing, her new momentum is not only understandable but frightening. And Cuties – named after the dance troupe that Amy so desperately wants to be a part of – is an alchemy of two overriding factors. Doucouré, whose short Maman(s) (2015) won top honours at Sundance, Toronto and the Césars, is an accomplished director. Artfully cutting back and forth between the kitchen sink cinéma-vérité of Amy’s home life and the sexy, high-octane beat of pre-teen attitude, Doucouré creates a giddying clash of cultures.


But the director’s true coup is the casting of Fathia Youssouf Abdillahi, chosen out of 700 hopefuls, who inhabits the role of Amy with a head-spinning combination of ingenuousness and guile. And, as she apes the robotic Terpsichorean antics of the ‘Cuties’, she even cuts some impressive dance moves. Here, Doucouré is most troubled – and where the film has met some controversy (it has been banned in Turkey). Her point is that today’s youth is victim of an increasingly sexualised social media and where a young girl’s self-esteem is governed by who ‘likes’ her provocative posturing on various digital platforms. At times recalling a French distaff version of Good Boys – albeit without the guilty chuckles – Cuties addresses very serious issues with forthright conviction (as only the French can). While most of our own rites-of-passage would have had our parents cringe in disavowal, today’s battlefield is far more debilitating in the demolition of an untarnished childhood. In direct contrast to the film’s opening scene of Islamic brainwashing, when Amy overhears fellow students misinterpret the extreme porn they are watching on a phone, the blood curdles.


However, while attempting to bridge the gap of two opposing worlds, Maïmouna Doucouré is not always successful. As Amy gets more and more out of control at home, her mother – who has discovered that her husband has re-married – seems implausibly tolerant. Much of the tension of the earlier scenes arises from Amy’s flaunting of the house rules, such as daring to visit a secret room in the apartment. Then, when her father asks to talk to her on her mother’s mobile phone, she chucks it out the window. And retribution comes there none. This rather undermines the domestic dynamic, while the film’s second half – in which the Cuties enter a dance competition – plays with Hollywood convention. Neither works to the film’s benefit. Still, Amy’s turbulent freefall from grace – and the traditions that still underpin her psyche – make for captivating drama. And the spontaneity that Doucouré captures from her young actors is a true wonder.


Original title: Mignonnes.




Cast: Fathia Youssouf Abdillahi, Medina El Aidi, Esther Gohourou, Ilanah Cami-Goursolas, Myriam Hamma, Maïmouna Gueye, Mbissine Thérèse Diop, Demba Diaw, Mamadou Samaké, Bass Dhem.


Dir Maïmouna Doucouré, Pro Zangro, Screenplay Maïmouna Doucouré, Ph Yann Maritaud, Pro Des Julie Wassef, Ed Mathilde Van de Moortel and Stéphane Mazalaigue, Music Nicolas Nocchi – aka Niko Noki.


Bien ou Bien Productions/France 3 Cinéma-Netflix.

95 mins. France. 2020. Rel: 9 September 2020. Available on Netflix. Cert. 15.