REVIEW: “Cuties” is a bold cinematic statement that should be celebrated, not canceled

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Medina El Aidi (left) and Fathia Youssouf (right) made their acting debut in the controversial French film “Cuties.”

Society hates confronting their present almost as much as they hate confronting their past. 

The response to Maïmouna Doucouré’s “Cuties” has revealed to me this unfortunate reality.

The controversial Netflix film entered the public consciousness when the streaming service released marketing material depicting the lead actresses striking suggestive dance poses, dressed in revealing outfits.

Like gas to a flame, the outrage erupted to the point that even congresspeople have called for the film’s removal. Netflix has stood by the film, leading to a mass subscriber exodus that’s still bleeding today. 

Refusing to watch this film whilst condemning it is an act of aggression against art, against filmmakers and free thought in society. The criteria I use to judge the film are independent of my strict opposition to censorship. 

“Cuties” follows Amy, an 11-year-old from a devout Muslim family, who immigrated from Senegal to a poor neighborhood in Paris with her mother and two younger brothers. Amy’s life is structured and disciplined – she is expected to pray daily and learn the household duties of a woman in a religious arrangement. Performed with vigor and a precocious yearning by first-time performer Fathia Youssouf, she exudes a thoughtfulness that is so powerful for a girl her age. 

We soon discover Amy’s polygamous father is returning home with a second wife. Her mother hides her grief, whispering forlorn prayers to God, wishing much happiness and many children on her husband and his new bride. The quietness of these moments is heartbreaking. 

Amy is angry with her father, angry with her mother for pretending, angry with her aunt for forcing religion and duty. She escapes into the arms of her rebellious neighbor, Angelica, who introduces Amy to her twerking dance troupe. 

The film is carried on her small, but sturdy shoulders as we navigate the world solely through her eyes. The forced perspective of the screenplay lends itself to Amy’s gradual change. To see the world of this film through any other perspective would, in my opinion, destroy its immediacy. 

The chemistry between the four girls is wonderful, especially Amy and Angelica. Their friendship feels pure, independent from the sexualized nature of the foursome. When the four of them are together, aside from dancing, most of their time is spent talking about boys while stalking them on social media and even catcalling them on the Paris streets. 

When Amy and Angelica are alone, there is pureness and innocence in how they relate to each other. This dynamic plays into the power of peer pressure and social influence. Soon, Amy dresses more provocative and lashes out with her mom at home. 

Doucouré exudes masterful restraint, not calling attention to her clear skill as a filmmaker. Her position on the actions of the characters is totally ambiguous, giving us reason to respect and recoil at Amy’s decision making. She does not sentimentalize Amy’s predicament, instead, injecting it with abject realism, allowing the audience to easily empathize with her. 

The film is not perfect, though, as there are narrative hiccups along the way and sort of a vicious turn by Amy in the third act that is not given time to breathe. But the emotional climax of the film induces profound empathy and clarity and denies the audience easy answers to the questions posed by Doucouré.

Before I go any further, I must disclose my anger. This will not be the last time a film creates controversy, but the effect the backlash could have on Netflix could be irreparable. 

Disingenuous politicians like Ted Cruz and Tom Cotton have even called on the Department of Justice to investigate the film. For politicians to call for formal investigations without having watched a single frame, is absurd at best and utterly insulting at worst. 

Frankly, if the Republican politicians scorching this film cared half as much about the severity of a pandemic as they do about an independent French film, you would be reading this in a classroom or the student center. Not locked in the confines of your homes. 

The film is challenging precisely because it confronts the notions of femininity and sexuality in young girls and does not shy away from thrusting the viewer head-on – not only into the world of the characters, but of the world inhabited by the viewer’s children and grandchildren.

To pretend that sexualizing young girls is a new phenomenon is foolish. Our government, the media and frankly, all of society, cannot wash its hands of the commodification of women’s bodies because it helps them to sleep at night.

That is the point of all this nonsense: the anger stems from a lack of control. Not only are the young girls in this movie dancing provocative, but our own young girls as well. 

I hold myself firmly on the side of the filmmaker, now and always. We cannot simply move the goal post if you will, whenever we see fit. Where would be without the likes of Scorsese’s “Taxi Driver” or Kubrick’s “A Clockwork Orange?” 

Today, film has become predisposed to be easily digestible and to leave our consciousness the moment it has left our path of view. Filmmakers like Doucouré challenge these notions by using the form to confront questions of humanity, in this case, sexuality, adolescence and the hypocrisies of religious hierarchies.  

Concerning oneself with the treatment of children, especially child workers, is not a negative. Before watching the film, I contemplated the potential exploitation of the child actors. But upon watching it and hearing what Doucouré had to say, I realized her intention and was wholly impressed by the work she had created.

That is why I do not adhere to the outrage machine; it cannot be reasoned with. To do so would be a futile and stupid gesture. It is clear to me that those most enraged by the film are those who have not seen it. The outcry against “Cuties” is nothing more than a calculated maneuver by conservative America to censor art and maintain the status quo. Nothing more, nothing less.

Watch the film and decide for yourself, but do not be an advocate for censorship.