The City of Light offers a distant escape in Girlhood

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      Starring Karidja Touré and Assa Sylla. Rating unavailable.

      Filmmaker Céline Sciamma immerses you so fully in the world of French-African girls coming of age in Paris’s sprawling banlieue projects that you’re going to have trouble leaving the characters when the film is over.

      Just as she did in 2011’s remarkable Tomboy, Sciamma keenly observes what it means to be a girl growing up in a specific place and time. In the case of 16-year-old Marieme (played by the unaffected Karidja Touré), it means sharing a cramped apartment, taking care of her younger siblings due to an absent, overworked mother, and enduring the rule of a physically abusive older brother. Like other men in the ’hood, he still imposes the gender strictures from his parents’ culture, dividing females into good girls and sluts.

      Making matters worse, Marieme’s being told she has to go to vocational school. In her anger, she hooks up with a black all-girl gang, soon straightening out her hair and donning leather jackets.

      Sciamma’s singular skill is in the nonjudgmental way she presents the enigmatic Marieme’s choices. Yes, Marieme’s new pals encourage her to shake down schoolmates for lunch money and take part in the odd beat-down, but they also offer her the kind of empowerment and sisterhood she’s never had. In one extended scene, the four get drunk in a hotel room, taking bubble baths and lip-synching to Rihanna—finding a brief escape from lives of dead-end futures.

      But soon Marieme is forced into decisions: there are only a few ways out of the projects—all bad—and there are always predators lying in wait.

      Girlhood makes us feel the oppressiveness of living under these conditions. Watch the girls’ laughter and horseplay screech to a halt when they approach a group of loitering guys or hear a man arriving home.

      Sciamma shoots it all with a confident eye, putting the sad-eyed Marieme against vast, blue walls or shooting the girls, street dancing, against mod suburban high-rises. A synth-heavy electronic score drives the action. It’s a world without adults or direction, with the constant lure of Paris’s glittering Les Halles just a train ride away.

      The result is mesmerizing, the nonresolution troubling. But if Marieme has no easy answers, why should we?