Netflix’s Cuties is too intelligent and moving to be marred by one bad-taste poster

'Cuties' is too clever a film to be subjected to the kind of policing it has experienced so far. Maïmouna Doucouré’s film, about an 11-year-old girl searching for her place in the world, is an important contribution to the coming-of-age genre, and well worth a watch, writes Clémence Michallon

Wednesday 09 September 2020 14:51 BST
Fathia Youssouf, Médina El Aidi-Azouni, Esther Gohourou, and Ilanah Cami-Goursolas in 'Cuties'.
Fathia Youssouf, Médina El Aidi-Azouni, Esther Gohourou, and Ilanah Cami-Goursolas in 'Cuties'. (Courtesy of Netflix)
Leer en Español

Last month, Netflix felt compelled to apologise. By its own admission, the streaming service had done Cuties, a French film released on the platform this 9 September, a monumental disservice.

The problem originated with a poster released – and subsequently removed – by Netflix. While the French version depicts 11-year-old protagonist Amy and her friends gleefully carrying a bunch of shopping bags, Netflix’s took a much different approach. In it, the girls are onstage, three of them mid-twerk, all of them adopting provocative poses in revealing, hardly age-appropriate outfits. It looks, in short, like Toddlers and Tiaras – French Tweens Edition.

The image does, in fact, reflect a specific scene in the film. But without context, and without director Maïmouna Doucouré’s skilled storytelling, it fatally fails to reflect the essence of Cuties.

Amy (Fathia Youssouf), the film’s protagonist, joins a dance group and searches for her place in the world. The daughter of Senegalese parents, she struggles between the conservative, obedient model of femininity she finds at home, and the more liberated model offered by her dance friends – even though their apparent empowerment is surface-level at best, and extremely fragile. The film examines the way in which our culture inappropriately hypersexualises girls’ bodies. And it does so in a way that is unambiguous, honest, and brave. But Netflix’s poster muddied the waters, and now a petition demanding the film be removed from the platform (where it hasn’t even been released yet) has received more than 300,000 signatures.

“We’re deeply sorry for the inappropriate artwork that we used for Mignonnes/Cuties,” Netflix tweeted, referring to the movie both by its original French title and its English name. “It was not OK, nor was it representative of this French film which won an award at Sundance. We’ve now updated the pictures and description.”

Cuties trailer

Yes, it was nice of Netflix to apologise. Removing the poster was wise, too. But it’s hard not to wish none of this had happened in the first place, mainly because Cuties and its critical success are, sadly, statistical anomalies to begin with. This is a movie about a black girl, directed and written by a black woman. It’s a coming-of-age story centering a group of girls, when the genre so frequently favours boys. It premiered at Sundance in 2020 and won Doucouré the Directing Award in the World Cinema Dramatic category. A release on Netflix was destined to open the film to an international audience – a precious rarity for so many non-English-language features. Cuties can still find fans abroad, but it deserved to do so without any of the accompanying noise.

Cuties is a movie about girls and the culture that sexualises them. It is, crucially, not a movie in favour of hypersexualisation. Just because a work of art depicts something, that doesn’t mean it’s advocating for it. If that were the case, no thriller would ever get written – no rape scene, no burglary even, would ever be depicted on screen.

The Cuties controversy is reminiscent of another wave of outrage that washed over France, this time in 1857 over the classic novel Madame Bovary. Gustave Flaubert, its illustrious author, was accused of obscenity for its depiction of adultery, despite the fact that the titular Madame Bovary dies by suicide after her affairs. But even in the 19th century, Flaubert was quickly acquitted.

Hopefully, the same will happen for Cuties, with the controversy reduced to one or two paragraphs on a Wikipedia page. At its heart, Cuties captures the casual (and at times not-so-casual) violence and volatility of female friendships at that age. Watching Amy attempt to fit in with her new clique, I found myself revisiting my own pre-adolescence – that feeling of watching the world from the sidelines, the eagerness to find a spot at the centre of it all, and the relentlessness with which tween diplomacy consistently pushes you back to the margins.

Apple TV+ logo

Watch Apple TV+ free for 7 days

New subscribers only. £8.99/mo. after free trial. Plan auto-renews until cancelled

Try for free
Apple TV+ logo

Watch Apple TV+ free for 7 days

New subscribers only. £8.99/mo. after free trial. Plan auto-renews until cancelled

Try for free

One of the most touching moments comes when Amy’s closest friend, Angelica (Médina El Aidi-Azouni), turns to Amy, who’s busy intertwining her friend’s hair with her own. “They say I’m a bad daughter, that I can’t do anything,” Angelica tells Amy of her own family. “But people, they like me. Right, Amy? They like me?” It’s so raw, so moving, it’s as if the movie is taking you by the hand and saying, “See? This is the deeper truth I’ve been trying to show you all along.”

Yes, the dance scenes are uncomfortable to watch at times. In fact, they should be uncomfortable. The experience they reflect – that of being an 11-year-old girl constantly pulled between different versions of what it means to be a woman when you are, really, still a girl – is excruciating.

Doucouré explained in an interview with the French radio station France Culture that she chose to film those dance scenes, which includes close-ups of the girls’ bodies and of their faces, in a way that would bring the viewer as close to Amy as possible. In those moments, we see the girls as they would like to see themselves. Yet the film constantly bookends those scenes with sequences that bring the girls back to their unfair, complicated, unnecessarily brutal reality.

For all its explorations of what it means to exist in a girl’s body, Cuties never leads its viewers astray. Doucouré never wavers from her original intentions. The girls in the movie are so obviously children. Not just that – they’re childish, immature, riddled with growing pains.

Cuties is too important and too clever a film to be subjected to the kind of policing that’s been directed at it. Watch it. Will you feel uncomfortable doing so? Probably, but the discomfort is only one part of the experience. You’ll feel empathy for Amy, for her friends and family. Perhaps you’ll feel relieved your pre-adolescence is behind you.

Don’t let the poster distract you. It’s only one facet of a much bigger, more interesting story.

Cuties is out on Netflix on 9 September.

Join our commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies


Thank you for registering

Please refresh the page or navigate to another page on the site to be automatically logged inPlease refresh your browser to be logged in