There’s a shot in “Girlhood” that’s one of the most heart-stopping things I’ve ever seen. It comes midway through Céline Sciamma’s sober, ecstatic, wrenching film: a simple tracking shot from right to left that takes in the faces of about 12 teenage girls, all Parisian, all poor, all daughters of the African diaspora. They’re out for a sunny afternoon on the plaza of La Grande Arche, not far from the gritty high-rise banlieue where they live, and their faces are alive with chatter and possibility. They’re outrageously, unselfconsciously beautiful, and their beauty comes from the strength they show only to each other.
All except for one, Marieme (Karidja Touré), the girl staring out at us at the beginning of the shot — she wants to show her strength to the world. “Girlhood” is, on the face of it, a traditional coming-of-age movie, French division, with taproots that go all the way back to Truffaut’s “The 400 Blows” in 1959. But by focusing her lens on an unnoticed heroine in an unnoticed subculture, and by layering clear-eyed observations about race and gender and fitting in and breaking free, Sciamma makes the genre feel vibrantly new.
When we first meet Marieme, she’s 15 and at childhood’s end. Her grades aren’t good enough to get her into high school, so vocational school beckons, meaning a life exactly like that of her single mother (Binta Diop), an office cleaning woman. Up to now, Marieme has been the good daughter, cooking meals and taking care of two younger sisters (Simina Soumaré and Chance N’Guessan). Then a trio of tough girls led by Lady (Assa Sylla) welcomes her into their group, and it’s as though a window had opened in a stale room.
The original French title of “Girlhood” is “Bande des Filles,” which roughly translates as “Gang of Girls,” and for the first half, it’s a study of marginalized young women taking sustenance from each other’s rebellion. The four girls dress alike — straightened hair, denim shorts, leather jackets — and indulge in shoplifting and other petty delights. They sass other groups of tough girls, and there’s a fight that becomes a neighborhood main event. In one glorious scene, they scrape together money for a hotel room and retreat for a sleepover, filmed in shades of deep blue, with Rihanna’s “Diamonds” serving as the glue that will bind them together for what only seems like forever.
Where are the guys in all this? (Forget about the parents, who are vanished, working, or invisible.) One of the more quietly tragic aspects to “Girlhood” is the way the sunshine of the girls’ personalities ducks behind the clouds whenever men or boys are nearby. Sciamma presents a Paris that the tourists and a lot of locals don’t see, the underclass beyond the ring road, a generation or two removed from sub-Saharan Africa but holding on to the old mores, especially those that involve women. Marieme’s older brother (Cyril Mendy) is a neighborhood player who expects her to uphold the family honor. “Do what you want to do,” Lady advises Marieme, but does that extend to her sexual longing for the gentle Ismaël (Idrissa Diabaté)?
Touré, an acting first-timer, has a natural elegance that sustains a viewer’s interest as the shy Marieme gradually grows a hard protective shell. The actress goes through a series of physical transformations over the course of this unexpectedly epic drama, defining her character again and again until Marieme runs out of options and must figure out how to be herself. At one point, a neighborhood kingpin (Djibril Gueye) finds the girl sitting disconsolately in an all-night diner and quickly takes her measure: “Strong and alone.” Where that gets you is precisely what the film wants us to ponder.
“Girlhood” — the English-language title was attached before Richard Linklater’s “Boyhood” was released; the two films share little beyond a profound sympathy for the business of being young — has been shot with coolly composed wide-screen camerawork by Crystel Fournier and is graced with a burbling electronic soundtrack, by Jean-Baptiste de Laubier, a.k.a. Para One, that at times overspills with emotion. The movie captures that heady adolescent sense of time stopping and the moment mattering while standing far enough back to let us acknowledge all the pitfalls Marieme is moving too fast to see. The final image nods to Truffaut’s Antoine Doinel on the beach — and then moves beyond the reference, through despair to resolve, Marieme passing across the ocean of that wide, wide screen on her way to a future entirely unknown and entirely her own.