Ballet school drama Neneh Superstar is the kind of film that gives festivals like Rendez-Vous with French Cinema a reason to reach out to younger teens like they do with the film’s initial free screenings. While it’s YA in scope, Neneh-Fanta Gnaoré’s (Oumy Bruni Garrel) story — directed by Ramzi Ben Sliman — is both heartfelt and bitterly honest about the truth behind so many lauded institutions. She dreams of becoming a ballet dancer, something that shows in her every movement on the playground, teeming with energy. Dreaming of the Opera de Paris Ballet School, she hasn’t quite contended with the precise nature of that school’s mission. Her supportive parents (Steve Tientcheu and Aïssa Maïga) encourage this dream, though her working-class background outside of Paris puts her at odds with the wealthy student body of young ballerinas with private tutors, and that’s well before race comes into play. Even once she’s admitted, just one of seven girls in a vast sea of hopefuls, school head Marianne Belage (Maïwenn) reminds her that she is here to be challenged — which is a lot of weight to put on a child’s shoulders.
Garrel, in her first role in a feature not directed by one of her actor-director parents, often comes off as a bigger star than the rising talent she plays. She’s incredibly kinetic, always in motion even when preteen restlessness hurdles away from a dancer’s grace; cocky and not quite in control of her own growing body. A young performance can make or break a film, and her commitment means that her wide-eyed admiration for a director she wants to be her mentor and the power struggles that subsequently ensue between student and teacher make the two parties into equals in their intensity.
From an American perspective, the overt nature of the school’s institutional racism seems a bit overtly presented, but the cultural difference does prevent more covert forms of prejudice from taking the lead. When filling out applications, the girls are reminded to list many details about their parents, down to height and weight (in order to extrapolate the not-yet-grown children’s physical development, and therefore, their worthiness), which serves as a reminder that they do not get to leave their backgrounds behind for their talent. Aggressors are punished less severely than Neneh when she finally fights back, and she is admonished by being blatantly excluded from a chance to lead in the class production of Snow White. Marianne subscribes to a belief in “guaranteeing the tradition of white ballet,” and even when she admits to relating to the young girl’s struggle for perfection, she is still distanced by her own prejudice. But Neneh herself is never painted as a perfect victim in this situation. She’s often rude and distracted and interrupts because she’s twelve — a child forced into adult games.
This film also features one of the most eye-roll-worthy needle drops imaginable. Perhaps Sliman hasn’t been inundated with years of repetitive TikTok, but Masked Wolf’s “Astronaut in the Ocean” is too new to be divorced from its own virality, even if it may genuinely be what a twelve-year-old would dance to for fun. At times, the ballet world also seems so cold and unwelcoming that you’d wonder why she, with all her flair for performance, would desire it for anything beyond the mausoleum-cold image of pain and success — the transfixion isn’t effectively articulated. And so, though Neneh Superstar boasts some young talent, and the first truly great performance from Maïwenn since 2016’s My King, it seems best suited to be an awakening for a younger audience rather than any more substantial interrogation into persisting, insidious power structures.
Published as part of InRO Weekly — Volume 1, Issue 10.