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SUNDANCE 2024 World Cinema Dramatic Competition

Review: Girls Will Be Girls

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- Debuting director Shuchi Talati explores the intricacies of female adolescence against a backdrop of male-dominated societal norms

Review: Girls Will Be Girls
Preeti Panigrahi (left) and Kani Kusruti in Girls Will Be Girls

In recent decades, the coming-of-age film genre has evolved significantly. What began as a focus on boisterous high-school comedies in the 1990s gave way to a more nuanced blend of romantic comedies and dramedies in the early 2000s. Filmmakers like Jannicke Systad Jacobsen, with Turn Me On, Goddammit! [+see also:
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interview: Jannicke Systad Jacobsen
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, and Lisa Aschan, with She Monkeys [+see also:
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interview: Lisa Aschan
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, marked the transition with a notable shift away from conventional masculine norms, instead offering a more intimate exploration of female adolescence and the rites of passage associated with it. Debuting director Shuchi Talati continues in this vein in Girls Will Be Girls, screening in the World Cinema Dramatic Competition at Sundance. Set in a scenic Himalayan hill town in Northern India in the pre-social-media age, Talati's film delves into the complexities of female adolescence and gender identity set against the backdrop of traditional conventions.

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Girls Will Be Girls centres on 16-year-old Mira (Preeti Panigrahi) as she becomes the first female head prefect at an elite, yet traditional, boarding school. Within the school's ecosystem, and typifying the genre, Mira embodies the archetype of the academic overachiever. Her receipt of consistent A grades elicits scorn from her peers, and her elevation to head prefect brings additional duties and responsibilities along with increased disdain, although she does not become entirely ostracised. Her mother (Kani Kusruti), a housewife residing nearby and an alumna of the same school, serves as the primary driving force behind Mira's academic pursuits. The mum's strict emphasis on academic achievement is rooted in her desire for Mira to have a different future from the life of a stay-at-home wife, reliant solely on her husband's income and whims, which she ended up enduring.

However, Mira’s academic pursuits start getting derailed as she experiences the waves of first love. The catalyst for this shift is a new student from Hong Kong, fitting the archetype of the “international student” in the coming-of-age genre. Talati handles the portrayal of Mira's first love with an initial awkwardness, but it evolves into a sensitive exploration of burgeoning sexual awareness. Contrary to typical expectations, Mira's relationship is not concealed; her mother is fully aware and welcomes the boyfriend into their household.

A pivotal aspect of the film is its portrayal of the inter-generational dynamic between Mira and her mum, framed by the patriarchal society. The mother's involvement in Mira's romantic life is not portrayed as malicious, but rather as a reflection of her own repressed youth. Mira's burgeoning romance thus becomes a conduit for her mother’s arrested coming of age. This parallel plotline turns into a reflection on the unfulfilled desires, societal constraints and gender norms faced by the preceding generations. Girls Will Be Girls offers a two-generational perspective on coming of age, effectively bridging the divide between past and present, tradition and modernity. As the plot weaves together the motifs of adolescence, gender norms, societal expectations, South Asian identity and female sexuality, Talati’s direction is sensitive while avoiding the pitfalls of naivety and sentimentalism. The movie’s portrayal of the protagonist’s romantic and sexual awakening is handled without faux idealism, especially with the threat of male violence still present.

Girls Will Be Girls is an honest exploration of female adolescence, the mother-daughter dynamic under the prevailing patriarchy, predefined societal constructs that shape women’s lives, and the effort to attain agency under those circumstances.

Girls Will Be Girls was produced by Pushing Buttons Studios (India), Crawling Angel Films (India) and Dolce Vita Films (France), and co-produced by Hummelfilm (Norway), Cinema Inutile (USA), Blink Digital (India) and Arte Cofinova. Luxbox handles the international rights.

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