Cuties review: A deftly crafted, if cliche, coming-of-age story

Cuties -- courtesy of Netflix
Cuties -- courtesy of Netflix /

Once you strip away the controversy surrounding Maïmouna Doucouré’s Cuties you’re left with a well-made and slightly underbaked coming-of-age story.

Let’s be honest – you’ve probably only heard of Cuties because of the sudden and intense internet hellfire that rained down on it after Netflix released a controversial promotional poster (that was subsequently taken down) featuring a gaggle of 11-year-old girls twerking on stage.

The poster (and the film’s synopsis) generated massive outcry online, and calls to cancel Netflix for supporting what many referred to as “child pornography” began to run rampant. For those who have seen the film, however, such claims may seem puzzling. After having seen the film ourselves, we can say this: Maïmouna Doucouré’s Cuties is many things: Deftly directed and filled with stunning performances, certainly, but child pornography it is not.

Starring Fathia Youssouf Abdillahi as Amy, Cuties follows the life of an 11-year-old Senegalese-French girl who becomes obsessed with joining a local dance crew (the titular Cuties) made up of fellow girls her age. Mesmerized by their “mature” moves and styles of dress, Amy begins to lash out at her mother and aunt and struggles to find a balance between her religious and family obligations with her newfound interest in dance.

First and foremost, let’s address the question in everyone’s minds. Yes, the over-sexualization of young girls is front and center in Cuties’ narrative, but the last thing the film does is glorify, celebrate, or sensationalize its protagonist’s newfound interest. From the very moment we meet the Cuties the audience understands that they’re not aspirational figures – they’re foul-mouthed, bratty girls who initially bully Amy and throw rocks at her for watching their rehearsal. Although their provocative style of dress gets them attention at school, it’s not the good kind – whether they’re aware of it or not.

In fact, one of the central ideas in Cuties is the disconnect between what the Cuties think of themselves, and how they’re perceived by others. When we first see the Cuties at school, they’re running to class and stumbling over their own feet in their heels – a perfect visual representation of what’s really going on behind how they dress. While they may think that dressing a certain way is getting them positive attention, from an outside perspective, they don’t look so cool and mature. There are several instances in the film when the Cuties attempt to use their perceived “sexuality” to get what they want, especially from adults, but each and every time they’re shut down with a mixture of repulsion and amusement.

It’s abundantly clear to everyone but the Cuties themselves that they’re just little girls playing dress-up to try and mask their own insecurities. Although at first the group seems impenetrable, Amy if finally able to worm her way into the dance crew, and once’s she’s a part of the group, it quickly becomes clear that just because she’s the only one who doesn’t dress the part, she’s not the only member of Cuties who’s lacking the sexual experience the rest of the girls pretened to have.

One particularly memorable (and moving) scene involves Coumba (Esther Gohourou) finding a condom while the Cuties are playing around in a park, and jokingly blowing it up, thinking it’s a balloon. The rest of the Cuties are horrified and begin screaming and telling her to get away from them because she’s filthy, and suddenly Coumba’s tough, sassy exterior crumbles in an instant. In seconds she goes from a ringleader, almost a bully, to a vulnerable little girl in tears over being ostracized from her peers.

It’s a haunting moment, and one we wished we would’ve seen more of, because despite the strong initial first half of the film, once Amy has joined the Cuties, the film begins to lose quite a bit of steam. In the first half hour, in addition to setting up Amy’s obsession with the dance group, the film also spends quite a bit of time establishing what Amy’s home life is like – that she’s the daughter of a Muslim Senegalese woman whose husband has found a second wife and is coming home soon to marry her and bring her into the family.

About half an hour in there’s a haunting scene of Amy hiding under her mother’s bed and accidentally overhearing her mom breakdown over the news of her husband’s impending marriage – it instantly adds depth to both characters and sets up a potentially moving storyline about Amy’s mother’s struggle with gender roles in her own religion. However, despite the fact that the first half-hour of the film features several scenes of Amy praying with other older Muslim women (seemingly setting up the eventual conflict between her religion’s ideologies and her passion for dance), the film drops the ball in this regard.

While Cuties does have some scenes of Amy’s mother and auntie in dismay at her new style of dress and the trouble she’s getting into at school because of the Cuties, there’s never any big confrontation or resolution, and once the credits rolled, we couldn’t help but feel underwhelmed that after all the build-up, the religious aspect to Amy’s transformation went virtually unacknowledged.

There are certainly moments in Cuties that can be difficult or even uncomfortable to watch, but nothing gratuitous or excessive, nor is it the kind of thing that doesn’t unfortunately happen in real life. After the Cuties fumble their big audition, Amy overhears Angie say that they need a way to get attention back on them, and takes a nude photo of herself and posts it online. It gets her attention, certainly, but not the kind she had hoped for – a boy at her school calls her a slut and attempts to grope her – a simultaneously punishment and acknowledgment of Amy’s provocative action.

It’s scenes like this where Cuties is at its strongest – shining the spotlight in the snafu that is sexuality for young women. Pressured by society to look and act a certain way, even after girls conform to what they think they’re being told to do, they’re punished and scorned for whatever move they make. Cuties examine the over-sexualization of children, especially with the newfound prevalence of social media, watches protagonist Amy go from an outcast because of her frumpiness to an outcast because of her over-sexualization.

Cuties is a fascinating watch because it simultaneously manages to be an almost joyous coming-of-age story while also a damning commentary of a taboo subject – a difficult line to walk that director Maïmouna Doucouré manages admirably. While the story may be a little cliche and underwhelming at times (especially in the film’s second half), deft direction and stunning lead performances make Cuties worth the watch.

Next. Mulan review: A colorful, confused take on a beloved classic. dark

Have you seen Cuties? What’s your favorite Netflix movie? Sound off in the comments below.