ENTER-CUTIES-MOVIE-REVIEW-MCT

Ilanah Cami-Goursolas, Esther Gohourou, Medina El Aidi-Azouni and Fathia Youssouf in the movie "Cuties." Netflix/courtesy

Early on in "Cuties," Amy (Fathia Youssouf), an 11-year-old Senegalese immigrant living in Paris, hides under a bed and eavesdrops while her mother, Mariam (Maimouna Gueye), makes a few difficult phone calls. Her husband has decided to marry a second wife, she tells her friends; yes, isn't that wonderful news? Amy, from her partially obscured vantage, can't see her mom's tears, though she can hear the barely disguised anguish in her voice. At the same time, she has perhaps never seen Mariam more clearly, a woman whose long-suffering heart and tough exterior are finally on the verge of breaking.

So much of this sharp and clear-eyed debut feature, written and directed by the French filmmaker Maimouna Doucoure, is about the power, the danger and the limitations of a child's gaze – everything it can discover, absorb and misinterpret. (It's also become an unfortunate case study in the adult capacity for misinterpretation, but more on that in a bit.) In a tiny public-housing apartment that's about to get even smaller, Amy observes the heartbreaking toll of a patriarchal order that has long governed her Muslim family, but which now holds ever less sway and relevance in her life. In another scene, while walking home with her two younger brothers, she catches a captivating glimpse of freedom: four girls her age, rehearsing a routine for an upcoming dance competition.

The girls, who call themselves the Cuties, don't take too kindly to Amy spying on them and begin chucking rocks at her. That assault, much like their suggestive dance moves, is part of their tough-girl act, and an act it very much turns out to be; the Cuties project a lot more confidence, ferocity and real-world savvy than they actually possess. And Amy, despite or perhaps because of her more conservative upbringing, embraces their style, their attitude and most of all their dance moves with an ardor that surprises them and even herself. Not long after she makes her way into the girls' good graces and their dance crew, Amy's the one giving them twerking tips and shooting their Instagram content, inspired by provocative online videos that all of them are a bit young to be watching, let alone emulating.

The dangers that lie in wait on the internet are an important subject in "Cuties," but the movie, to its credit, never becomes a reductive cautionary tale. For one thing, Amy's decisions feel spontaneous and surprising rather than programmed; Youssouf darts through the picture with a vigor, unpredictability and emotional openness that reminded me of nothing so much as one of the Dardenne brothers' caution-defying young protagonists. For another, no one in Amy's life – not even her absentee father and least of all her newfound friends – can be reduced to a cardboard antagonist or even a negative influence. (That's especially true of her closest pal, Angelica, a sympathetic ringleader type played by the irrepressible Medina El Aidi-Azouni.)

In a story that's all about looking and seeing, Doucoure's own gaze reflects a principled ambivalence: She regards the push-pull of Amy's existence – her rigid upbringing on one hand and her incipient liberation on the other – with equal parts affection and skepticism. Doucoure, who won a directing prize at this year's Sundance Film Festival, has a knack for finding the perfect image again and again: In perhaps the movie's funniest moment, Amy pulls her hijab over her head during a group prayer meeting and secretly watches a dance video underneath.

But while "Cuties" is full of such inspired contrasts between the sacred and the secular, it's also attuned to the similarities. Amy's elders, notably a strict auntie (Mbissine Therese Diop) tasked with her education, are bent on molding her into an attractive marital prospect. Her dance routines aren't that much more enlightened, insofar as they, too, cater explicitly to men's desires. Clothing can be both beautiful and burdensome, whether it's the traditional blue dress that Amy is expected to wear to her father's wedding or the tight tank tops and other midriff-baring shirts she and her friends favor at school and on the stage.

That's about as good a segue as I can muster to an unpleasant subject that I wish could be passed over without mention but nonetheless illustrates why "Cuties" deserves a more thoughtful, intelligent audience than its own distributor seems to expect. Weeks ago, Netflix released a promotional image that sexualized the story's young protagonists in a way that the movie itself scrupulously avoids doing. Self-styled internet moralists immediately jumped on the film (sight unseen, of course) and called for its removal, essentially likening "Cuties" to child pornography and spurring Netflix to yank the image and apologize for its mistake.

Society's rampant sexualization of preadolescent girls is one topic that Doucoure subjects to tough critical scrutiny; she's made an empathetic and analytical movie, not an exploitative one. Both her film and the unfortunate contretemps surrounding it make at least two things perfectly clear: A young girl can look at herself, really look at herself, and learn something truthful and powerful from the experience. Some putative grownups, by contrast, can never be bothered to do the hard work of looking at something, let alone learning from it.

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