Cuties is an impressive, complex coming-of-age narrative and a profound refutation of the nonsensical controversy that has arisen around it.
The hysteria surrounding Maïmouna Doucouré’s Cuties (Mignonnes) is, like many such controversies in the era of QAnon conspiracy theories, much ado about nothing. To be fair, Netflix’s tone-deaf marketing campaign is mostly to blame for early reports that the film featured the inappropriate sexualization of pre-teen girls, but that marketing campaign was not only deeply inappropriate, it was also completely incongruous to the film it was attempting to promote. In fact, it’s quite the opposite – Cuties is a sobering, often deeply moving portrayal of the lengths to which young girls will go to find acceptance in a hyper-sexualized world that places primary importance on the desirability of women’s bodies. Netflix’s embarrassing marketing campaign seemed more as if they were promoting the latest season of Dance Moms, complete with scantily clad young girls looking as though they’re having the time of their lives — a bit like the climax of Little Miss Sunshine played completely straight. Yet the tone of Cuties couldn’t be further from the sparkly, brightly-colored promotional materials that caused such stir in the darkest corners of the conservative internet just a few weeks ago.
The damage has been done, of course. Doucouré was forced off Twitter after receiving an onslaught of death threats, and there were calls to ban the film altogether. It’s unlikely those who attacked it sight-unseen will ever give it the chance it so richly deserves, but it’s their loss because Cuties is an altogether remarkable film. It centers on Amy (Fathia Youssouf Abdillahi), an 11-year-old girl of Senegalese descent living in France with her mother and younger brother, who desperately wants to fit in with a school clique known as the “Cuties.” Aloof, popular, and aspiring hip hop dancers, the Cuties welcome Amy into their circle, and she quickly becomes immersed in their world as they train for an upcoming dance competition. But the further she descends into their hyper-sexualized world, the further she drifts from her family and her culture, as they deeply confuse Amy’s attempts to grow up in a world that wants her to become an adult far too quickly.
Cuties is something of a coming-of-age nightmare, grappling not only with society’s sexualization of young girls, but also the general treatment of women as little more than sex objects (Amy’s unseen father is in the process of bringing in a second wife from Senegal, leaving her mother depressed and adrift). Amy also suffers much harsher consequences for her behavior than her fellow Cuties, reinforcing long-held stereotypes of black girls as being more adult and sexually aggressive. It’s within this ideological cloud that Cuties navigates some tricky emotional waters, and it’s often difficult to watch, but there is something incredibly cathartic about the way that it allows Amy to reclaim agency over her own life and grow up on her own terms, apart from cultural and social expectations.
Doucouré’s direction has a haunting, often otherworldly quality; its occasional hints of magical realism recalls Mati Diop’s intoxicating work in Atlantics. There are few more striking examples of the intellectual dishonesty and misplaced outrage of QAnon’s mindless conspiracy-mongering than Cuties, a broken conservative ideology that eschews nuance and takes very real problems like pedophilia and human trafficking and turns them into cartoon villainy in an online culture war for which there can be no victor. But much like Hillary Clinton’s pizza parlor sex ring, the pedophilic themes of Cuties simply do not exist. It’s a disturbing and complex critique of the very thing it’s accused of celebrating, anchored by a strong central performance and a deep sense of empathy for victims that the online discourse surrounding it noticeably lacks. It’s an elegy for lost innocence, but ultimately a hopeful one, as it seeks to reclaim childhood from a society that is all too content to dismantle it.
You can currently stream Maïmouna Doucouré’s Cuties on Netflix.