Tempest in a Teapot

Cuties is streaming on Netflix

Take a seat. Better yet, make a nice, hot cup of tea, pull up your nearest fainting couch, and get ready for some information that is sure to blow your mind. Ready?

You sure?

Okay…here goes. *takes a deep breath*

Americans are really, really stupid when it comes to both art and nuance. An example is the kerfuffle that sprang up regarding The Last Temptation of Christ. It all began with the 1955 novel written by Nikos Kazantzakis that examined the life of Jesus. Specifically, it posited the concept of Jesus briefly succumbing to temptation while on the cross and imagining a normal life. One that involved sex, love, and a family.

As you might imagine, a certain stripe of Christian was very angry with the book. This anger turned to incandescent rage in 1988, when Martin Scorsese adapted the novel into an excellent film. Now, you would think people who were taught the Gospels, to live with a love for others, to turn the other cheek, you would think those folks would either try to see the spiritual message inherent in Last Temptation* or love the people they disagreed with in brotherhood.

Nope! Thousands of people called for the film to be banned. Television evangelists denounced Scorsese. In fact, Scorsese received numerous death threats which, unless I missed big chunks of the Bible, is antithetical to the message of Christianity. There was even an attempted terrorist attack on a theater in Paris. A group of radical Catholics (Yes, seriously) set off an incendiary device that wounded thirteen people.

So based on the preceding paragraphs, I must think that conservative Christians are a bunch of gullible nitwits, right? Well…no. As much as I’d like to take a moment to clown on the right-wing outrage machine, the fact remains that both liberals and conservatives tend to live in a black and white space when it comes to artistic expression, and that space is not where nuance lives. Don’t believe me? Let’s talk about the new film Cuties, and why the controversy around it is mostly nonsense.

Amy (Fathia Youssouf) is eleven, and she has just moved from Senegal to a neighborhood in Paris. Things are very different for her. She’s in a new place with new customs and new faces, and she’s expected to help care for her two younger brothers. What about her parents, you might ask? That’s where things start to become complicated. Her mother Mariam (Maimouna Gueye) is already struggling to keep the children stable in their new home. Mariam tries to live as a righteous Muslim woman and feels pressure from her Aunt (Mbissine Therese Diop) to do better. The pressure gets worse when she receives a phone call from Senegal and the news that her husband has taken a second wife.

This is all an enormous amount for Amy to process. She needs support, and unfortunately, Mariam doesn’t have the bandwidth to provide it. So, she seeks out a support system elsewhere, and boy howdy, does she find it. A pilfered smartphone introduces her to social media and the endorphin rush that comes from likes and comments.

A chance encounter at school pinballs Amy’s life in a radically new direction. She meets the Cuties, a group of girls in her grade. They are her neighbor Angelica (Medina El Aidi), the snarky Coumba (Esther Gohourou), and the combative Jess (Ilanah Cami-Goursolas). The Cuties move through the world with the kind of bulletproof self-confidence that only exists within tweens and rich, white men. Their goal is to enter and win a dance competition, one that emphasizes barely-there costumes and dance moves that are…well, let’s go with “suggestive.”

The realization hits Amy like a thunderbolt. The Cuties are everything she isn’t and like nothing she’s ever seen before. At least, that’s what she thinks. How to get in with the cool girls? Proving yet again that the internet was a mistake, Amy dives online and immerses herself in videos. Her plan is to imitate the moves of dancers much older and copy their routines, routines that are wildly age-inappropriate. They don’t just push the envelope, they rip through the damn thing. It’s all in service of social medial likes, realizing a vague dream, and learning that actions have consequences.

A number of prominent individuals have accused Cuties of either being child pornography or sexually exploitative. Senators Ted Cruz and Josh Hawley railed against the film. An op-ed in the conservative website The National Review wrote, “Thus, whatever their artistic intentions, in making a social commentary about the sexualization of children, the filmmakers undeniably sexualized children.” Christine Pelosi, daughter of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, tweeted, “Cuties hypersexualizes girls my daughter’s age, no doubt to the delight of pedophiles like the ones I prosecuted. Cancel this, apologize, work with experts to heal your harm.” It was all outrage, but it never came from a place rooted in liberal or conservative ideology. It was only reactionary.

By now, I imagine you’re probably thinking, “Don’t keep us in suspense, is Cuties offensive trash that comes straight from the Second Circle of Hell?” No, but it is designed to make viewers feel uneasy.

Director Maimouna Doucoure has made a clear-eyed and nuanced film about the raging desire of a child to fit in, and the poor decisions they can make that blow up in their faces. She knows exactly what kind of film she’s making; one about perspectives. When the girls practice their routines, we hear pulsing pop music as they emulate what they have seen elsewhere. I’m not sure they’re fully aware of the meaning of these suggestive dance moves, but they know on a subconscious level that they have raw power. However, watch the same routine later when adults observe. You’ll see some skeezy guys who are into it, but far more adults who are repelled and appalled. In the end, the gaze of the camera is entirely dependent upon context. There are also tiny moments of surrealism that pop in and out, such as a dress that Amy is given to wear at her father’s wedding. Watch how the shape and color of the dress slightly changes depending on Amy’s mood. It’s filmmaking that’s smart and subtle.

Doucoure based her screenplay on her own experiences as a refugee, as well as eighteen months of research regarding how social media influences the behavior of children and young teens. More relevant is her prior experience as a girl. The script is a coming of age tale in which Amy bounces between the expectations of her culture and religion to be a submissive wife, an onslaught of online images lacking in context, and the age-old growing pains we all go through. She ultimately wants to find her people and her place in the world while simultaneously wanting to rebel against the world she’s growing up in. The tragedy is that she makes decisions from the perspective of a child and is judged as an adult.

I think I was most impressed by the natural and honest performances that Doucoure was able to draw out of her cast.*** The younger actors do solid work, and I was particularly impressed with Fathia Youssouf as Amy. She’s asked to do some extremely heavy lifting from an emotional standpoint, and whether she’s about to break from pressure or giggling as she crams gummy worms into her mouth, she always feels believable. The stealth MVP of the cast is Maimouna Gueye as her mother Miriam. She has an astounding scene where she takes a phone call and learns of her husband’s decision to take another wife. Gueye’s tone of voice is all business on the phone. We can only see her feet as she hangs up the phone. For a moment there’s only silence, then we see her feet shaking as she sobs.

You’ve probably heard a variation of the old saying that depiction doesn’t equal endorsement. Odds are that the vast majority of people hysterically shrieking over Cuties either haven’t seen the film or are reading it in the most shallow manner possible. Cuties made me extremely uncomfortable. Since it’s a critique of society’s rampant sexualization of children, it’s supposed to. **** Maimouna Doucore’s film is intelligent and nuanced, and I fervently hope that her next project is viewed with more open-mindedness. Odds are, it won’t be.

*Whether you agree with the central message of the film or not, consider that the central message is that initially Jesus profoundly does not want to take the suffering of the world entirely within himself. He wants what everyone else wants, but decides to sacrifice himself anyway. That’s far more inspirational and relatable than a savior entirely free of doubt.

**While the film isn’t exploitative, holy hell is the advertising! Someone in Netflix’s marketing department made a series of Very Bad Decisions. You can read more here.

***It bears mentioning that there was a child psychologist on-set during the shooting, as well as officials from France’s child protective services.

***In fact, I think Cuties is far less offensive than some of the odious reality TV programs like Toddlers and Tiaras.

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