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Cuties

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Cuties
Cuties poster.jpg
French theatrical release poster
FrenchMignonnes
Directed byMaïmouna Doucouré
Produced bySylvain de Zangroniz
Written byMaïmouna Doucouré
Starring
  • Fathia Youssouf
  • Médina El Aidi-Azouni
  • Esther Gohourou
  • Ilanah Cami-Goursolas
  • Maïmouna Gueye
Music byNiko Noki
CinematographyYann Maritaud
Edited by
  • Mathilde Van de Moortel
  • Stéphane Mazalaigue
Production
companies
Distributed byBAC Films
Release date
  • 23 January 2020 (2020-01-23) (Sundance)
  • 19 August 2020 (2020-08-19) (France)
Running time
96 minutes
CountryFrance
LanguageFrench
Box office$582,876[1]

Cuties (French: Mignonnes) is a 2020 French coming-of-age drama film written and directed by Maïmouna Doucouré in her feature directorial debut.[2] The film stars Fathia Youssouf, Médina El Aidi-Azouni, Esther Gohourou, Ilanah Cami-Goursolas and Maïmouna Gueye. The plot revolves around a Senegalese-French girl with a traditional Muslim upbringing who is caught between traditional values and Internet culture. According to the filmmakers, the film is intended to criticise the hypersexualisation of pre-adolescent girls.[3][4]

The film premiered in the World Cinema Dramatic Competition section of the 2020 Sundance Film Festival on 23 January, where Doucouré won the Directing Award. It was released in France on 19 August 2020 by BAC Films and internationally on 9 September 2020 on Netflix.

While receiving generally positive reviews from critics, the film and the marketing campaign by Netflix became a subject of controversy and politicized backlash, receiving widespread criticism online.[5] Some groups and politicians claimed that it sexualises young girls, and several American politicians, as well as the Turkish Radio and Television Supreme Council, requested Netflix to remove the film.

Plot

Amy (pronounced [Ami]), an eleven-year-old immigrant girl from Senegal, lives with her mother Mariam and two younger brothers in an apartment in one of Paris's poorest neighbourhoods, where they wait for her father to rejoin them. She helplessly witnesses her mother suffer as her polygamous husband prepares to return from Senegal with a second wife. She is also bored with prayer and the religious values in general that her aunt seeks to impress on her.

Things turn swiftly as Amy is fascinated by her disobedient neighbor Angelica's twerking clique, "Cuties", an adult-style dance troupe which in stark contrast to Mariam's religious customs, values and traditions. The pre-teens practice for a competition and do not hesitate to adopt revealing outfits in the image of their older competitors. Encouraged by success and the quest for recognition on social networks, Amy decides to incorporate sexually suggestive dance moves into the choreography.

Following a humiliation at school, she sends a compromising photo of her vulva on social networks, which causes her to be rejected by her classmates. Following a quarrel with the rest of the Cuties, they ban her from performing with them at the dance contest.

While her father's wedding is on the same day as the final competition at Parc de la Villette, she is determined to dance with them.

Sneaking out of the house in her dance outfit, she pushes another member of the Cuties, Yasmine, into a lake, so that the Cuties have no choice but to allow her to dance with them. The highly suggestive dance routine shocks the audience. Suddenly thinking about her mother during the routine, Amy bursts into tears and leaves before their performance ends to join her mother.

Upon her return, she runs into her aunt who blames her for her outfit and recent attitude. Amy's mother intervenes by telling her to leave her daughter alone and then hugs her to reassure her. Amy implores her mother to allow Amy to not attend the wedding, in order to demonstrate her disapproval. Amy's mother permits her not to go, but states that she herself must go to fulfill her duty as a wife. Amy then abandons both the traditional wedding dress and her sexy dancer's outfit, and, in jeans and a T-shirt, her hair down, she goes out to play jump rope with a group of girls.

Cast

  • Fathia Youssouf as Amy
  • Médina El Aidi-Azouni as Angelica
  • Maïmouna Gueye [fr] as Mariam, the mother
  • Esther Gohourou as Coumba
  • Ilanah Cami-Goursolas as Jess
  • Myriam Hamma as Yasmine
  • Mbissine Therese Diop as the aunt
  • Demba Diaw as Ismael
  • Mamadou Samaké as Samba

Production

The film was announced by filmmaker Maïmouna Doucouré, as her debut directorial venture.[6] She rose to prominence with her award-winning 2016 short film Maman(s), which was selected and premiered in over two hundred film festivals, and won around sixty awards in several international film festivals.[7]

Doucouré penned the script for 'Cuties', taking her life experience as a refugee girl into account. The script eventually won Sundance's Global Filmmaking Award in 2017.[8] Doucouré says her inspiration for the film was a talent show in Paris that she happened to see.[9] She says that the contrast of the dancing and the traditional garb of the families in the audience was fascinating.[10] She also based it on her own experience with the contrast of the cultures of France and Senegal.[11]

Casting for the film took nearly six months. Approximately 650 girls auditioned for the main character; ultimately, 11-year-old Fathia Youssouf was chosen.[12] Filming took place in various locations around France over a period of three months.[13] Doucouré said she "created a climate of trust between the children and myself" during filming. She stated while working on the film, "I explained to them everything I was doing and the research that I had done before I wrote this story. I was also lucky that these girls' parents were also activists, so we were all on the same side. At their age, they've seen this kind of dance. Any child with a telephone can find these images on social media these days." She also stated that she worked with a child psychologist during filming.[14]

Doucouré spent nearly 18 months researching studies on how young and pre-teen children are being exposed to adult content and sexualised images on social media in order to showcase the accurate reality in the film.[15] She spoke to many young girls about these issues.[11] She says that the film deals with self-image and social media. "Our girls see that the more a woman is overly sexualized on social media, the more she's successful. And the children just imitate what they see, trying to achieve the same result without understanding the meaning, and yeah, it's dangerous."[16] She says that although watching these the film may be difficult, it is important to have a conversation in society about these issues.[11]

Theatrical release

Cuties had its world premiere in the World Cinema Dramatic Competition section of the 2020 Sundance Film Festival on 23 January,[17][18] where Doucouré won the Directing Award,[19] and was one of three French films to be screened at festival.[20][21] Originally set for a theatrical release in France on 1 April 2020, the film was delayed due to the COVID-19 pandemic in France,[22] and was eventually released on 19 August 2020 by BAC Films.[23][24]

Netflix release

In January 2020, prior to the film's Sundance premiere, Netflix purchased the worldwide rights to the film, excluding France.[25] It was released internationally on Netflix on 9 September 2020.[26][27][28]

Marketing

The original Cuties film poster used by Netflix. It was later replaced following criticism.

Prior to its release on Netflix, the film had not been deemed controversial when it was screened at Sundance and released in France.[10] After Netflix acquired Cuties, its international promotional poster and trailer for the film were criticised for allegedly sexualising 11-year-old girls,[28][29][30] and were different from those used to promote the film in its original release in France. The Parents Television Council (PTC) requested that Netflix remove the film entirely, and a Change.org petition calling for people to cancel their Netflix subscription gathered more than 600,000 signatures.[29][31] Followers of QAnon on social media also criticised the film,[10] and 4chan banned images pertaining to the film from being posted on the imageboard site.[32][33] In Latin America, #NetflixPedofilia trended on Twitter prior to the film's Netflix release.[34]

In response, Netflix replaced the poster with a new one, stating, "This was not an accurate representation of the film so the image and description has been updated."[35][36][37] The new poster depicts the 11-year-old girls wearing panties and bras over their clothing while celebrating. Although Netflix did change the promotional poster and description to be less sexual/provocative and supposedly more "representative" of the film, the film itself still includes the three minute scene that was the source of the objectionable promotional image in which the 11-year-old girls wear revealing outfits and perform a provocative adult-dance routine including simulated sex acts and the touching of their genitals.

American actress Tessa Thompson came out in support of the film when it was criticised on social media, stating that "Cuties is a beautiful film" and said that she felt "gutted" when she saw the film for the first time during the Sundance premiere.[38]

In Turkey, the Ministry of Family asked Radio and Television Supreme Council (RTÜK) to take the necessary precautions and evaluate the film;[39] RTÜK subsequently demanded the film be removed from the Netflix catalogue.[40][41] In September 2020, Pakistani actor Hamza Ali Abbasi signed one of the petitions and demanded Netflix cancel their planned release of the film.[42] Adriana Martínez Bedini, vice-president of Buenos Aires' Consejo de los Derechos de Niñas, Niños y Adolescentes (Council for the Rights of Girls, Boys and Teenagers) called for "being very cautious in not erotizing infancy. Its consequences in society could be dangerous", adding that the topic would be included in the council plenary.[43]

In an interview with Deadline Hollywood, Maïmouna Doucouré stated that she received numerous death threats and personal attacks following the backlash on social media.[44] She claimed that things happened fairly quickly (after delays due to COVID-19); she was focusing solely on the film's theatrical release in France, and at the time was not consulted about the controversial poster unveiled by Netflix. She said that she was notified of the film's poster controversy after being informed of negative feedback and reviews from the public on social media, and that the co-CEO of Netflix phoned her directly and apologised for the poster release.[45]

International release

On 10 September, #CancelNetflix started trending on Twitter in the United States (one day after the release of the film internationally) with The Guardian saying that opposition came from across the political spectrum.[46] Michelle Jaworski of the Daily Dot said that part of the outrage was based on clips of the film that were taken out of context.[47] Subscribers of Netflix repeatedly threatened to cancel their subscriptions following the release of the film on the platform. It became the second Netflix film in 2020 to have received severe backlash and condemnation among the public regarding accusations of inappropriate culture portrayal, following 365 Days.[48] Shortly after its release on Netflix, Cuties had an IMDb rating of 1.7/10,[49] reflecting the impact of review bombing in relation to the controversy over the film.[50]

In response, Netflix defended Cuties, saying that the film is a piece of "social commentary against the sexualization of young children" and encouraged subscribers to watch it.[51][52][53] In a further interview, Doucouré claimed that people upset with her film have not streamed it, stating: "I realize that the people who have started this controversy haven't yet seen the film. Netflix has apologized to the public and to myself. I'm hoping that these people will watch the movie now that it's out. I'm eager to see their reaction when they realize that we're both on the same side of this fight against young children's hypersexualization."[54]

The National Center on Sexual Exploitation, a conservative religious[55][56] organization, condemned Netflix for giving a film "that has permitted the sexual exploitation of children" a platform and called for the company to cut the "sexually-exploitative scenes or stop hosting this film at all".[57][58][59][56]

However, Forbes noted that the film does not contain child pornography, such as explicit nudity of a minor.[60] The French directors guild criticised the backlash against the film, calling it a "grave attack on freedom of creation" being fueled by "the most conservative of Americans."[61]

Despite the controversy, the film reached the top 5 in the United States on Netflix, as well as the top 10 in 17 other countries.[62] However, it has also been noted that there was a decrease in renewals to Netflix likely due to the film.[63][64] The days after the film's release saw an eight times increase in the number of cancellations of Netflix subscriptions than typical, reaching "a multi-year high", according to data analytics companies Antenna and YipitData.[64][65]

In September 2020, in an interview hosted by French organization UniFrance, Doucouré reflected that the film became controversial primarily due to the artwork of Netflix streaming platform. In the interview, she rejected the claims on her film being accused of cultural differences between European and American viewers. She insisted that she also shares the same spirit and fight against sexualisation of children similar to those who have been criticizing the film.[66][67] Doucouré reaffirmed her intentions for making the film in an op-ed for The Washington Post, and responded to the controversy saying, "The movie has certainly started a debate, though not the one that I intended." She also said, "It's my sincerest hope that this conversation doesn't become so difficult that it too gets caught up in today's 'cancel culture.'"[11]

U.S. political responses

U.S. Senator Josh Hawley of Missouri informally invited Netflix to discuss the film "before Congress" in a tweet.[68] U.S. Senator Mike Lee of Utah sent a letter directly to Netflix CEO Reed Hastings, and requested "an explanation on [Hasting's] views as to whether or not the potential exploitation of minors in this film constitutes criminal behavior".[69] U.S. House Representative and former Democratic primary contender Tulsi Gabbard of Hawaii explicitly called the film "child porn" and that it would "whet the appetite of pedophiles [and] help fuel the child sex trafficking trade."[70] U.S. Senator Ted Cruz of Texas sent a letter to the Department of Justice to "investigate whether Netflix, its executives, or the filmmakers violated any federal laws against the production and distribution of child pornography."[71] Christine Pelosi, daughter of U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, stated that Cuties "hypersexualizes girls my daughter's age no doubt to the delight of pedophiles like the ones I prosecuted."[72][73] Senator Tom Cotton of Arkansas and Representative Jim Banks of Indiana also both criticised the film in separate statements calling for the DOJ to take legal action against Netflix, with Cotton saying "There's no excuse for the sexualization of children, and Netflix's decision to promote the film 'Cuties' is disgusting at best and a serious crime at worst".[74] Representatives Ken Buck of Colorado and Andy Biggs of Arizona also called for the Department of Justice to investigate.[75] The state attorneys general of Ohio, Florida, Louisiana, and Texas have also written a letter to Netflix asking for removal of the film.[76][50]

Critical response

On Rotten Tomatoes, the film holds an approval rating of 91% based on 56 reviews, with an average rating of 7.09/10. The website's critics have described it as: "A thoughtful look at the intricacies of girlhood in the modern age, Cuties is a coming-of-age film that confronts its themes with poignancy and nuance."[77] At Metacritic, the film has a weighted average score of 69 out of 100, based on 12 critics, indicating "generally favorable reviews".[78]

Monica Castillo of RogerEbert.com gave the film four out of four stars, stating "Cuties is a difficult and challenging film, pushing the idea of 'depiction does not equal endorsement' to its limit."[79] In a review for IndieWire, Kate Erbland wrote, "Although Doucouré steeps Cuties in emotion and experience, she abandons its grace to make crazier gestures."[80] Variety's Amy Nicholson wrote, "Newcomer Youssouf has an anchoring presence. Occasionally, Doucouré lets her light up the screen with a smile, and at the director's most expressionistic, the girl floats", though it noted that the film is aiming to get more "gasps than laughs" with its dance numbers.[81] Other reviewers noted that the film is intended to criticise "a culture that steers impressionable young girls toward the hypersexualization of their bodies" and "seems to want to provoke censure".[3][4] Clarisse Fabre of Le Monde praised the film and noted that it avoids judging the sexualised dances of the girls.[82]

French newspaper Libération described the film as "endearing but too demonstrative", adding that "the film remains on the threshold of the discomfort that it intends to press each time it meets the male gaze, as if it was afraid to blame it head on".[83] According to France Info, "Mignonnes' words are a subtle reflection on the condition of women when childhood and innocence discreetly recede" and a "female cast carried by the intensity of the young Fathia Youssouf, a revelation".[84]

David Fear of Rolling Stone rated the film 3 out of 5 stars, calling it a "sensitive portrait of growing pains that deserves to be seen".[85] Common Sense Media gave the film 4 out of 5 stars and wrote that "Maïmouna Doucouré has created an evocative, compassionate portrait of young girls finding their identity and values".[86] Alyssa Rosenberg of The Washington Post defended the film, stating that the film would be liked by those who have not seen a glimpse of it yet, and she also criticised the remarks made against the film.[87][88] Carlos Aguilar of TheWrap compared Cuties to films such as Girlhood (2014), The Fits (2015) and Atlantics (2019).[89]

Awards

Award nominations for Cuties
Ceremony Award Category Nominee Result
Berlin International Film Festival[90] Generation Prize Best Film
  • Maïmouna Doucouré
  • Bien Ou Bien Productions
Nominated
Crystal Bear Generation Kplus – Best Film Maïmouna Doucouré Nominated
Sundance Film Festival[91] World Cinema Dramatic Competition Directing Award – Dramatic Maïmouna Doucouré Won
Grand Jury Prize – Dramatic Maïmouna Doucouré Nominated

See also

References

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