The Internet uproar over “Cuties” originated with the Netflix poster promoting it, which provided little sense of the film’s nuances. Some critics used that as the basis to condemn the movie, almost certainly sight unseen, for inappropriately sexualizing a young Black girl. The conversation, including calls for a Netflix boycott, has only gotten more hysterical since. Some conservatives, among them Judicial Watch head Tom Fitton, tried to use the controversy to impugn the morals of former United Nations ambassador and current Netflix board member Susan Rice and Barack and Michelle Obama, who have a production deal with Netflix.
“Cuties” — the actual movie, not the dark exaggeration of it — is a film about how difficult it is to become a girl when your role models take you from one extreme to another.
At home, Amy’s mother Mariam (Maïmouna Gueye) takes her to a prayer circle where the women are told that evil resides in “the bodies of uncovered women.” Mariam and Amy both struggle with Amy’s father’s decision to take another wife. While Mariam tries to force herself to accept the arrangement with grace, Amy rebels against her Tante’s (Mbissine Thérèse Diop) demand that Amy do much of the cooking for her father’s second wedding.
“Cuties” suggests that there is real beauty in the traditions Mariam and Tante want to pass down to Amy, especially in the way Doucouré shoots the older women’s clothes and prayer scenes. But the movie is clear-eyed about why Amy might want nothing to do with a version of womanhood that to her seems defined by humiliation and drudgery.
In rebelling against this austere vision of femininity, though, Amy careens onto a secular path that carries its own risks.
When Amy spots Angelica (Medina El Aidi) dancing with joy and abandon in the laundry room of their public housing complex, Amy is drawn to the other girl’s sense of physical freedom. But once you have freedom, you have to figure out how to use it wisely and in your own best interest. In the absence of a trusted adult, Amy’s teachers instead become the likes that pour in when she posts a pouty picture on social media, and the algorithms that take her from dance routines to twerking videos on streaming sites.
Though Amy’s friends seem to have an intuitive ability to play at adulthood while avoiding acts that might irrevocably end their childhoods, Amy — new to France, Western pop culture and social media — can’t rely on the same cultural or social education.
“Cuties” doesn’t use cliched scare tactics, such as the paranoia about child sex trafficking that has infected U.S. politics, to make this point. But Doucouré is blunt about the fact that real harm can be done when a child behaves in ways typically reserved for grown-ups.
It’s a real shame that so many conservatives are condemning “Cuties” when they might find a great deal to like about the movie — and no, I don’t mean they harbor a secret taste for twerking preteens.
This is very much a film about what happens to kids when their parents aren’t physically or emotionally present in their lives. It’s highly skeptical of social media platforms and what sexualized mainstream culture teaches children about what behavior is normal or desirable. Though its characters post provocative dance videos and wear revealing costumes, “Cuties” doesn’t present their actions as liberated or admirable: Instead, the movie repeatedly shows other characters reacting with sadness or disgust when these girls try to act like grown women.
The triumphant climax of the movie isn’t a dance competition, but when Amy returns to age-appropriate clothes and games, finding an authentic version of herself in acting like the gummy-bear scarfing, giggly girl she was earlier in the film. In that moment, Amy is not bound by the religious and cultural traditions she found so constraining, but she’s not trying to live up to a different and equally restrictive idea of what it means to be a girl, either.
I can see how viewers might be turned off by the way Doucouré shoots the dance routines, using close-ups of her young actors’ bodies both to show us their abilities as dancers and to make us deliberately queasy. But not liking that choice or not thinking it works in the way she intended does not make Doucouré an evil pornographer, just an ambitious director.
I know it’s easier to condemn a movie intended to make you uncomfortable than it is to sit with that discomfort and analyze it. Still, it’s a shame a movie about an 11-year-old’s moral education has made so many adults act stupid.
Read more from Alyssa Rosenberg: