Premise: Amy, an 11-year-old girl, joins a group of dancers named “the cuties” at school, and rapidly grows aware of her burgeoning femininity – upsetting her mother and her values in the process.
Perhaps you’ve already heard of Cuties because you saw it advertised on Netflix. Perhaps you heard of it through word of mouth. More likely, you’ve heard of it because of the controversy the film has stirred up which has caused it to be shared on social media and even, yes, Ted Cruz. But to really talk about Cuties is to talk about America’s political discourse in 2020.
However, I’m going to use this space, first and foremost, to talk about the content and artistry of the film in question. Director Maimouna Doucoure tells a coming of age story revolving around an 11-year old French Muslim girl named Amy (Fathia Youssouf) who struggles to come to terms with her religious upbringing and her sense of belonging. We’re introduced to Amy as she attends a prayer circle for women in which one of the leaders stresses the importance of a wife’s subservience to her husband. Soon after, Amy learns that her father has secretly wedded a younger woman and will be returning from Senegal to live with his new bride and Amy’s mother and younger brothers. Through this, Doucoure crafts an intriguing conflict of a young girl who has nobody to turn to as she navigates adolescence. Amy soon meets and befriends a quartet of girls after watching them practice for a dance contest.
It’s here where Cuties derives its notoriety and, coincidentally, it’s here where the film falls flat. As Amy integrates herself to the titular dance group, she – to put it mildly – begins to explore her femininity and what she views as acceptable behavior. Yes, the dancing on display is fairly explicit and hard to watch at times. But what is most disheartening is that the film could be successful without those scenes or those moments. During the dance scenes – which, just as problematically, are often filmed with an almost leering, male gaze – I found myself longing to return to the difficult dynamics between Amy and her family, or Amy and her fellow classmates. Growing up as a young girl is certainly hard, especially as an outsider like Amy, and Doucoure makes Amy a sympathetic character that the film would be much more successful without the dancing scenes entirely. That Fathia Youssouf’s quietly empathetic performance will surely be lost in the shuffle of this film’s discussion is one of its more unfortunate aspects. Amy is simultaneously confused, conflicted, and curious, while still giving off an air of confidence to her peers, lest she blend in with the rest of the crowd. Youssouf impressively rises to the challenge whenever the script (also written by Doucoure) asks her to do any emotional heavy lifting and finds the heart of the character. I look forward to seeing what she does next. Yann Maritaud’s cinematography is also particularly impressive.
Until a few days ago, I had not initially planned on watching, much less reviewing, Cuties. The internet had made rumblings about the sexualization of the film when Netflix first premiered the trailer, and I had assumed it would be lost in the ether, as is the eventual fate of many of the streaming platform’s original films. Once it was released though, the floodgates opened and it seemed like everybody was weighing in. The problem is that many, if not all, of the discourse revolved around people who had yet to even see the film. You can decry that the film sexualizes pre-teens in an unnecessarily lewd manner (for what it’s worth, I wouldn’t entirely disagree with that sentiment). You can argue that the simple act of watching the film is enabling pedophilia or child sex trafficking, or think that anybody that does so should be automatically branded as a pervert.*
*Those that believe this don’t actually understand how the Netflix model works: Netflix doesn’t really care how many people watch the film once it drops. The filmmakers don’t care either; they’ve already been paid and likely don’t receive any kind of bonus if members do or do not watch it. The only tangible way to show Netflix that you’re displeased is to cancel your membership, and only time will tell if this is even an effective response.
We live in a free society where people can believe and say almost anything. That the Flat Earth Society is still a living, breathing entity is more than enough proof of that. What is most disheartening about the discussion around Cuties, though, is the unwillingness of the public to actually watch the film and form their own opinions. If you want to watch Cuties and have a debate on the merits and drawbacks of the film, I would be happy to do so. But refusing to familiarize yourself with the content you’re so vehemently demonizing is ignorant and lazy at best.
All too often today, we’re more willing to click a button and share a headline or a meme of something we already agree or disagree with in order to affirm our own stance, rather than doing the hard work of understanding the heart of the matter. Sharing memes or news stories that spread the outrage of Cuties without actually knowing the content of the film in question is akin to buying a Ford Pinto because your neighbor just bought one.
About the Writer: Ben Sears is a life-long Indianapolis resident, husband, and father of two boys, as well as a contributing writer on ObsessiveViewer.com. Aside from watching movies and television, Ben enjoys photography (bensearsphotography.com) and running marathons, but never at the same time. That would be difficult.