By Tommy Gagliano
“Mignonnes” (or “Cuties,” as it’s known in North America) is a French indie film written and directed by Maïmouna Doucouré, which tells the coming-of-age story of a Muslim Senegalese girl living in Paris. The film premiered at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival, where it was well-received, and earned Doucouré a Directing Award. It was released to audiences in France in mid-August, and was again given a positive reception. Then, everything changed when Netflix’s advertising department attacked.
Netflix purchased the rights to the film in every country outside of France, and added it to their platform on September 9th. The graphic they created to promote the film certainly grabbed people’s attention, but not in a good way. It showed four young girls posing while wearing skimpy outfits, and a translated title: “Cuties.” Everyone lost their minds. The reaction wasn’t unreasonable, as people were not presented with any context—just young, half-dressed girls and the word “Cuties.” The way Netflix chose to advertise the movie was pretty stupid, but surely once everyone saw the film and understood the context they would calm down, right? …Right?
Wrong. The outrage over “Cuties” is still alive and well, with detractors going as far as to label it “soft-core child porn.” (Search for “cuties soft-core” on Twitter; it’s baffling how many people are making this remark.) What’s going on here? Have those criticizing “Mignonnes” actually watched the film? If so, is it really bad enough to warrant accusations like “soft-core child porn”? And if that’s the case, why didn’t it cause any controversy in France?
After Joe submitted his article on the film, I felt that I needed to watch it myself to give him adequate feedback. I viewed it on Netflix, in its original language (French) with English subtitles, and… I don’t get what everyone is so upset about.
The film’s protagonist is an eleven-year-old girl named Amy. She is Senegalese-French girl living in Paris, with her two younger brothers and her deeply religious Muslim mother and aunt. She is waiting for her father to return from Senegal at the start of the film, but it is revealed that when he does come home, he will be bringing a second wife with him. Amy’s mother tries to remain unbothered, as she is supposed to be supportive of her husband’s decision to marry a second wife per Senegalese culture. Amy overhears her crying hysterically about it, however, and it is clear throughout the film that the situation is weighing heavily on both Amy and her mother.
The predicament with Amy’s father is part of a larger conflict for Amy. She has been raised in a conservative family that strictly follows Muslim and Senegalese rules, traditions, and values. Throughout the film, Amy tries to find out where she belongs, stuck in between the rigid religious and cultural framework of her family and the culture of freedom and individuality in Paris.
At school, Amy’s life should feel familiar to anyone that has set foot in a western middle school. Her problems and conflicts are the same as the ones we all went through at that age. She wants nothing more than to fit in with the “popular” kids, even if that means sacrificing part of who she is. Enter the “Mignonnes,” a dance group of four “popular” eleven-year-old girls at Amy’s school. She first gets introduced to the group through Angelica, a girl that lives in the same apartment building as Amy, after Amy bails her out of trouble. The other Mignonnes do not want anything to do with Amy at first, but that doesn’t stop Amy from seeking their approval. She begins to dress like them (by stealing her brother’s t-shirt and wearing it as a crop top), act like them, and even learn their dance. She wants nothing more than to be accepted, the dream of everyone on the planet between the ages of ten and fourteen—but she takes it too far. She steals money from her mother to buy new, more revealing clothing, neglects the role of caring for her brothers that her mother has trusted her with, teaches the other girls more suggestive dances in an effort to impress them, and, in an impulsive act of anger, confusion, desire to fit in, and rebellion against her restrictive family, posts a nude picture of herself online. Amy’s conflict reaches a breaking point towards the end of the film, when she pushes Yasmine (who the Mignonnes had replaced her with) into a stream, planning to use Yasmine’s absence to take her spot in the dance number. Upon realizing that Yasmine cannot swim, Amy is stuck with a decision—should she help Yasmine or go to the competition? She simply stares there for an uncomfortably long amount of time, frozen with indecision. Finally, Yasmine makes it to a buoy, and Amy runs off to dance with the other girls.
Of course, Amy’s new social life has put her at odds with her family life. In a way, she has been split into two totally different people. At home, she takes care of her brother and prays with her mother. With her friends, she gets into fights, sneaks into Lazer Tag without paying, and flirts with older boys (both in person and on a website similar to Chatroulette or Omegle). Amy has to decide: which person does she want to be? Is it possible to assimilate the two versions of herself? Will her family’s strict rules and values allow her to do this? Will the unrelenting cultural and behavioral demands of middle school allow her to?
Even outside of Amy’s inner conflict, we see plenty of examples of the film describing what it’s like to be at the middle school age, and what it means to come of age. Why do the Mignonnes dress the way they do in the first place? Because the older dance troupe that everyone likes does, so if they want to be taken seriously, they think that they have to do the same. No eleven-year-old wants to be eleven. They believe that they are mature, and they want to be treated like adults, so they act as if they are older, by trying to emulate what older people do. For the Mignonnes, that means wearing crop tops and short shorts, watching porn, flirting with older guys, and including suggestive moves in their dances. Every kid does similar things to seem more mature at that age, whether it be cursing frequently, playing inappropriate video games, dressing a certain way, or doing sexy dance moves.
One thing that Doucouré does very well, though, is remind the viewer that, despite how the girls act, they are still kids. My favorite example of this is at the fair, with the juxtaposition of the flirting scene and the condom scene. The four girls are talking with some high school age boys, but accidentally let it slip that they are eleven. Coumba tries to say that they are actually fourteen, but the boys get creeped out and leave. As they are walking away, the girls shout at them to come back and continually ask for their phone numbers. This scene is followed by one where they are hanging out in the woods, and Coumba starts blowing up a “balloon,” joking about how it looks like a boob. The other girls are horrified, as they recognize it as a condom. They start flipping out, with one of them explaining that a condom is used by people that have HIV when they have sex. The girls don’t let Coumba near them, as they are certain that she has been infected, and are scared that they will get infected as well. They eventually agree to take her home, where they intensively scrub her mouth (and face) with liquid soap to kill the germs. This scene is great, especially following the scene where they are pretending to act much older, because it breaks their facade and exposes their actual age and maturity. One of the girls didn’t even recognize the condom, and those that did were wrong about what it was used for (only for people with HIV), how HIV spreads, and how to get rid of it.
The film ends with the day of Amy’s father’s wedding (to his second wife). Coincidentally, it happens to fall on the same day as the big dance competition that Amy had been training for with the Mignonnes. Due to middle school cruelty, Amy had been kicked out of the group and replaced by Yasmine, who Amy had originally replaced earlier in the movie (due to more middle school cruelty). Amy decides to skip the wedding and go to the dance competition, even though her presence is no longer desired by the other girls. The aforementioned scene where Amy pushes Yasmine into the stream occurs on the way there, and Amy arrives just in time to replace the absent Yasmine. The girls get on stage to do their dance—the updated version with new, extra suggestive moves added by Amy. They execute it perfectly, but shots of the judges and audience suggest that, except for the occasional dude here and there, it isn’t going over very well. Most spectators seem appalled by what they are seeing on stage. Suddenly, Amy has an auditory hallucination of her mother’s voice, and freezes. She bolts off the stage and runs home, arriving just as her mother is getting ready to leave to attend her husband’s second wedding. Her aunt immediately begins berating her for disappearing and for the outfit that she is wearing, but Amy’s mother stops her. Amy begs her mother not to go to her father’s wedding. Her mother explains that she has to, but tells Amy she has the option not to attend. Amy changes into regular clothing, leaving the dress her father had bought her for the occasion in her wardrobe, and goes outside to play jump rope in the street.
“Mignonnes” really isn’t anything groundbreaking; it’s another entry into the popular genre of coming-of-age stories, dealing with the protagonist’s inner conflict. So why the massive amount of attention and outrage, then? Other than the initial advertising poster, there are a few scenes in the film which could be considered objectionable or “sexualizing children” when taken out of context. Throughout the film, Amy, Angelica, and the other Mignonnes are seen wearing crop tops, short shorts, and tight clothing. The reason for this is obvious, as they are trying to act older and emulate a different dance troupe that everyone loves. It is a symptom of a middle school age kid’s insatiable desire to be “cool,” and it is a strong reflection of the real world. The inclusion of suggestive dance moves has also been criticized, but is integral to the story for the same reason. Amy learned these moves from watching popular music videos on the Internet, and assumes that, since those videos got so many likes online, it would be beneficial for the Mignonnes to implement them into their routine as well. Early on in the film, when Amy is first becoming acquainted with the other girls, they pressure her into entering the boys’ bathroom with a cell phone camera out, in an attempt to record a glimpse of a boy’s penis. Critics seem to be missing that this scene is a statement on peer pressure, not an endorsement of voyeurism. It also relates to the “wanting to act older” theme. People have also been up in arms about one of the fight scenes, where Amy attacks a member of the opposing dance group. The fight ends with one of the opposition girls pulling off Amy’s pants and posting a picture of her underwear online, laughing about how they are made for little girls. This leads to Amy stealing money from her mother to buy “adult” underwear for herself and her friends, but also to Amy’s descent as she faces a lot of backlash as a result of the image spreading on social media. I may sound like a broken record, but this scene does a lot for the plot and the overarching theme and meaning of the film; it is not included for the pleasure of pedophiles. And, of course, there’s the scene where Amy snaps a picture of her naked lower half and posts it online. I’m on the fence a bit with this scene, as I don’t see how it is entirely necessary. I understand that it shows the frustration building up inside Amy, and how frustration can lead to impulsive and radical behavior (especially when you are young), but it seems a little extreme and a bit out of nowhere to me. That being said, I don’t understand the argument that this scene is “sexualizing children” at all. Only Amy’s clothed upper half is shown, except for a shot of her pants and underwear around her ankles (significant because the underwear is much more “adult” than the pair she was ridiculed for). I don’t love the scene, but I think it’s ridiculous to be outraged over it. The only thing that can be legitimately complained about, in my mind, is the way the director chose to shoot and frame certain shots. Many of the dance scenes contain frequent close-ups of the girls’ butts as they are performing their risqué moves. Showing the moves is obviously integral to the plot and theme, but more sparing use of close-ups might have been more appropriate. That being said, I respect the director’s artistic decision-making, and the fact that I had to nit-pick this much to find a single thing I sort of agree with the film’s critics on shows how weak their argument is.
“Mignonnes” is not “soft-core child porn,” it’s an exposé on going through middle school and coming of age, particularly as an immigrant from a strict Muslim family. It is an okay film that tackles complex and somewhat uncomfortable issues, that has been attacked and review-bombed by people that have either never seen the film, or are incapable of thinking critically about cinema. It is a victim of “cancel culture,” ironically led in large part by those who speak out against cancel culture most frequently. Polarization, tribalism, and mob mentality has led to outrage over a film that is entirely unexceptional.