About a million times better than “Boyhood,” “Girlhood” does pretty much everything Richard Linklater’s overrated Oscar contender doesn’t: It understands how the formative years actually happen, with decisions leading to memories, lessons, mistakes and growth. There are highs and lows, and certain elements are universal, but this French drama doesn’t do clichés. It’s an insightful, brilliantly acted look at a young life in development.
In an incredible debut performance, Karidja Toure stars as Marieme, a shy teenager motivated to befriend a group of more outgoing girls after she sees the male attention they receive. Gradually a real bond develops between Marieme, who now goes by “Vic” (short for Victory) after receiving a necklace with that name on it from queen bee “Lady” (Assa Sylla), and her new besties, revealed through subtle observations by writer-director Celine Sciamma (“Tomboy”). With an involving rhythm and deliberate pace, “Girlhood” understands the relationship between who you are on the outside and the inside, and how surroundings and an ever-changing social world impact who you become when you’re young.
Sciamma allows a few characters, including Vic’s boyfriend, to exist at a distance not quite in line with their significance. But you sure as hell don’t have to be a 16-year-old black French girl to relate to what happens, or appreciate what “Girlhood” knows about these characters — or anyone trying to define themselves. That doesn’t just mean the pointless arguments and difficult choices that come with adolescence. It’s a precise depiction of personal moments (like Marieme falling asleep holding her younger sister’s hands across the beds in their shared room) that speak volumes, even if they didn’t happen that way to you.
And even if Marieme’s change in look and lifestyle recalls Lindsay Weir in “Freaks and Geeks,” “Girlhood” brims with originality and confidence. And unlike “Boyhood,” there’s real sense of movement over time, that one thing leads to another and nothing is ever the same. From fights to dance routines to resentments and make-ups, this is a tremendous portrait of youth that continually adjusts whether each character represents a lifeline for now, or a bridge to the future.