The past couple of years have seen the release of two terrific coming-of-age films featuring teenage girls. Celine Sciamma’s Girlhood, her third film, dates from 2014. Girlhood is exquisitely shot and remarkably accessible considering it is about a French girl drawn into a gang.
Now, this film has a companion. Divines is the Caméra d’Or winner from this year’s Cannes Film Festival. Director/co-author Houda Benyamina creates an atmosphere in the first two-thirds of the film that is both original and unrelentingly fierce. The film’s final third maintains its tone but is weakened by a lapse into formulaic plotting. Still, Ms. Benyamina shows tremendous ability in this, her debut feature. She makes you look forward to her future projects.
Divines is the story of feisty Dounia (Oulaya Amamra, the director’s sister) and her more guarded friend Maimouna (Déborah Lukumuena). Both are French-born children of African immigrants living in a shantytown outside Paris.
Chances for economic advancement are bleak. The two attend a school where they take part in training to interview for low-level administrative jobs. Dounia confronts the teacher about the pay and possibilities for improving their quality of life, which gets her booted out of class. She vows she will never return, but will find her own way of making “money, money, money”.
Dounia and a reluctant Maimouna finagle an appointment with drug dealer Rebecca (Jisca Kalvanda) that leads to their being hired as go-betweens. It is a lot of risk for the pay, but Rebecca dangles the prospect of a glamorous “money” job before them. Naturally, this turns out to be the riskiest endeavor of all.
During act two, though, the film begins to look more familiar and less interesting. It starts with a romantic subplot involving Dounia and a dancer (Kevin Mischel). The scene where Dounia catches her faithless mother (Majdouline Idrissi) with Rebecca’s employee (Yasin Houicha) seems contrived. And so on through the finale.
Until that point, Benyamina does a good job of drawing you into this narrative. Cinematographer Julien Poupard’s gritty images help set the mood, as does the editing by Loïc Lallemend and Vincent Tricom.
The performances by Amamra and Lukumuena alone are sufficiently compelling to keep you engaged in this film. A scene where they fantasize about driving a Ferrari while sipping champagne with gorgeous men they have picked up is both touching and funny. Another time, they don traditional robes because they want to shoplift groceries. You have to keep your eyes on this duo every minute-and you will want to.
Divines is available on Netflix.
Theme: Young Friendships
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 Credited authors are: Houda Benyamina, Romain Compingt, and Malik Rumeau