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Girl ★★★★



Director: Adura Onashile

Cast: Déborah Lukumuena, Le’Shantey Bonsu, Danny Sapani, Liana Turner

Released: Sundance Film Festival 2023

Girl is an impressively poetic feature debut that will invoke longing for those underrated hugs from our nearest and dearest. Its intimate capture of the microcosm, set on a Glasgow council estate built by a mother and daughter, whose bond seems unbreakable as they share bubble baths and re-enact fairytales together, is reminiscent of a romance. Director Adura Onashile’s feature debut skilfully but sensitively shows the impact of the external world and the stages of puberty upon their carefully constructed world. Girl is both beautiful and heartbreaking in its portrayal, with social commentary underlining the undeniable chemistry between Grace, played by César winning actress Déborah Lukumuena, and Ama, Le’Shantey Bonsu, as the mother and daughter whose overwhelming love is at the heart of Girl.

Girl’s premise may be akin to a typical coming-of-age trajectory with a young 11-year-old girl striving to carve out her own identity in the world and rebel against an apparently overbearing mother. However, the film’s narrative does strike an unfamiliar, poignant chord with its added insight into cultural assimilation. Ama and her mother may be immigrants, but their needs resemble those of others within their surroundings and impoverished conditions. Grace is a leopard print-wearing youthful mother but leaves home at dark to embark on shift work. Onashile subtly depicts this challenge for parents who may oscillate between feelings of frustration and parental guilt in a bid to balance the needs of a child attending school and having to work unsociable hours. Onashile’s vision captures all of these emotions beautifully, with delicate emphasis on the tactile behaviours between Grace and Ama and the poetry they recite together as a means to survive and reassure one another.

Still, Onashile’s direction juxtaposes this insular, tender world with an overarching mood of external danger and uncertainty. Handheld camera shots slowly follow Grace walking along insalubrious pathways at night, encountering nightclub revellers, thus creating an unsettling tension of the innate anxiety for a woman walking alone at night. Slow, long shots of seemingly unsavoury characters in the shadows exacerbate this notion and demonstrate Onashile’s embrace of horror tropes within a mother-daughter dynamic. Furthermore, Onashile slowly builds up a perilous, gritty situation without exposition but outlines the nature of a potentially untrusted world fraught with danger for Grace and Ama. While Grace prays for her daughter’s safety, our prayers also extend for her safety. Girl will emotionally resonate with many and highlights the extent to which a normal act of rebellion by a child can escalate quickly with far-reaching circumstances. Even when a lonely Ama, at night, gazes at a distant funfair with longing and desire to be like her peers, her actions are tinged with a degree of danger.

As such, Girl’s cinematography is mesmerising. There are hints of trauma in Grace’s life, slowly teased by flashbacks without revealing the full extent of her backstory. Onashile revels in this ambiguity which permits the film to exude an unusual degree of beauty despite a negative tone. This beauty also extends to the overall joy that the camera work imparts. There is a focus on the wallpaper patterns within their apartment, the tapestry and sunlight seeping into Grace and Ama’s apartment promote the beautiful nature of the film and imbue a sense of hope. The camera lingers on Ama’s lonely exploration of her surroundings by tracing her fingers as she innocently touches fabrics and tapestries with childlike fascination. It is both captivating and heart-wrenching watching the isolation, but Onashile’s decision to accentuate the juxtapositions is highly effective in placing emotion at the fore of the film.

Lukumuena delivers a sympathetic performance as the battle-weary Grace, who is understandably afraid for Ama to grow up to prevent history from repeating itself. Lukumuena is spectacular to watch on screen following her impressive role within The Braves. But Bonsu charmingly steals all of the scenes in which she appears. Her doe-like expressive eyes and quiet strength radiating create an immediate emotional desire to always protect her in an awe-inspiring but poignant performance, belying her age.

Girl is a strong debut from Onashile, who demonstrates the subtlety required for such a film, which on the other hand, might have succumbed to lazy stereotypes. It is a film with a soul emphasising familial sacrifice. Girl’s quiet power is its ability to invoke feelings to re-establish familial connections; such is the impact of the film’s powerful and sublime directional choices.

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