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It seems too easy to label the French film Girlhood as a coming-of-age drama, like a companion piece to Richard Linklater’s Boyhood (it’s not). Nor is it simply a glimpse into the workings of a girl gang, although that’s a slightly better translation of its original title, Bande de Filles. The labeling would be unfair because Girlhood is both—and so much more.

Written and directed by Céline Sciamma, the film examines feminine identity in the context of modern French society. It spotlights women of color who inherit a set of preconceived identities, responsibilities and restrictions all because of a second X chromosome, and focuses, in particular, on one young girl’s struggle to change her given lot in life. It’s a theme that resonates far beyond French borders.

Girlhood’s opening immediately brings gender issues front and center: A football team emerges from a stadium tunnel to a pulsing, electronic soundtrack by Para One. The scene is already disorienting as they’re playing American football in France, but as the action unfolds in a slow-motion sequence, the audience realizes that most of the players in uniforms, pads and helmets are black teenage girls and young women. It’s an odd sequence, given that the only “football” reference in the rest of the film is the FIFA 13 soccer video game played by several characters. Symbolically, however, the mix of competition and camaraderie exhibited on the gridiron is representative of the rest of Sciamma’s film.

As the girls return home to their working-class neighborhood just outside of Paris, presumably from the football match, Marieme (Karidja Touré) and her friends are subject to ogling and catcalls from the boys hanging in the plaza. At 16, the soft-spoken Marieme already displays a maturity beyond her years. She takes on a matriarchal role at home as she cares for her two younger sisters while their mother works nights cleaning offices. She also stays clear of her tyrannical older brother Djibril (Cyril Mendy), who leads the neighborhood’s street gang. The boys and men in the film are also trapped within societal restrictions, though they’re mostly as protectors and providers, who resort to violence to maintain the existing power structure.

The lack of authority figures in Marieme’s and her friends’ lives is evident—even ones who are supposed to help instead discourage any sort of growth. A turning point in her life occurs when a guidance counselor tells Marieme that because of her grades, vo-tech and not high school is in her future. Marieme tells the counselor that she desperately wants to pursue an education: “I want to be like others. Normal.” The counselor’s response is devastating: “It’s a little late for that.”

With no prospects and hope, Marieme falls into the company of three free-spirited girls, led by the charismatic Lady (Assa Sylla), who’s joined by the comical Adiatou (Lindsay Karamoh) and the mysterious Fily (Marietou Touré). Together, they hang out in malls, dance, gossip, shoplift and pick fights with rival girl gangs. Sciamma’s film is rife with these dichotomies, most evident in a scene in which the four girls dress up, drink and smoke in a rented hotel room. Like other typical slumber parties, they sing and dance along to Rihanna’s song “Diamonds”—except that store security tags are hanging from their clothes. It’s a beautifully shot scene with a tinge of melancholy, made evident by Sciamma’s use of a blue tint.

Sciamma and cinematographer Crystel Fournier are deliberate in their shot choices. The camera takes its time in pivotal scenes that mark important choices in Marieme’s life, from stealing a knife from her mom’s kitchen to her decision to seduce her brother’s friend Ismaël (Idrissa Diabate). In some cases, the camera lingers too long and borders on the overly dramatic, especially when coupled with cut-to-black transitions that signal a new chapter of Marieme’s awakening.

Marieme’s transformation from wallflower to leader is fascinating to watch. The character undergoes both internal and external changes: She drops out of school, changes her name, upgrades her wardrobe and becomes noticeably more assertive. Like many in Sciamma’s ensemble, Karidja Touré was a nonprofessional actor; and in the surprisingly well-acted Girlhood, she is a standout. Touré’s countenance and subtlety are mesmerizing. She has the face of an angel and the ability to elicit pathos, even when the character commits violent or illegal acts. When Marieme bullies a girl into giving her €10 Euros, her self-loathing and remorse is palpable.

Sciamma’s first two features, Water Lilies and Tomboy, also examined the lives of adolescent and teenage girls, but focused on largely white, middle-class neighborhoods of Paris. Sciamma, who is white, uses a mostly black ensemble in Girlhood to bring the story of an underrepresented population to the screen. Girlhood is a remarkable film that neither casts judgment on its characters nor does it offer a tidy ending to Marieme’s problems. Instead, it highlights a larger socioeconomic situation to which many women can relate, and illuminates one girl’s discovery that the choices in her life—both good and bad—can be hers and hers alone to make.

Director: Céline Sciamma
Writer: Céline Sciamma
Starring: Karidja Touré, Assa Sylla, Lindsay Karamoh, Marietou Touré, Idrissa Diabate, Simina Soumare, Cyril Mendy, Djibril Gueye
Release Date: Jan. 30, 2015 in theaters

Christine N. Ziemba is a Los Angeles-based freelance pop culture writer and regular contributor to Paste. You can follow her on Twitter.