Senegalese-French director Maïmouna Doucouré has created an evocative, compassionate portrait of young girls finding their identity and values in Cuties.
In the hands of a less capable director, Cuties could easily have felt exploitative of its child actors, something the film was accused of in an initial (and controversial) marketing campaign in the United States.
Doucouré films the girls close up as they move their bodies in a sensual way and strike suggestive poses in halter tops, short-shorts, and excessive makeup. But she offers these scenes precisely in order to shock, because they should be shocking. The public's reaction to the girls' final performance in the film reveals as much.
The subtlety is in the way Doucouré captures the young girls' innocence. Despite their poses, they're not exactly informed about sex. They regularly collapse into piles of giggles. Amy isn't truly trying to provoke; she just wants to fit in.
That's where the context comes in: Set in the multicultural Parisian exurbs, Doucouré offers intriguing glimpses into the role of women in the Senegalese community. Amy is torn between the traditional values she's being taught at home and the draw of her new friends and culture. This feels both typical and an exceptionally perceptive portrayal of the plight of adolescence and the immigrant experience bundled into one.
Some images will stick with you long after this film -- Amy's symbolic wedding dress, her father's new bride shrouded in white, the girls' poses, and a beautiful closing scene of Amy bouncing back, literally, into her community and her childhood.