When Sabrina Yvonne’s 13-year-old sister asked her to watch the French coming of age drama Mignonnes or Cuties as it’s known in the United States, she didn’t think anything of it. By the time they finished the film, however, Yvonne, 26, felt disgusted.
“It was so vulgar…it was inappropriate,” she said in a recent phone interview with Brooklyn News Service, “and it felt like they were forcing them to do certain things that were not supposed to be done for kids their age. It was just too much,” she said.
The critically acclaimed film has been riddled with controversy since Netflix acquired it. Their international poster featured the 12 to 14-year-old actresses posing in two-piece clothing. Netflix apologized for the poster saying, “we’re deeply sorry for the inappropriate artwork we used for Cuties. It was not OK, nor was it representative of this French film, which premiered at Sundance. We’ve now updated the pictures and description.”
Cuties is the story of 11-year-old Amy, played by 14-year-old Fathia Youssouf, who is tired of living by her mother’s strict Muslim standards and longs for freedom. She gets her wish when she meets Angelica, her neighbor, and the hip-hop dance group called Cuties. With Angelica, Amy discovers a new side of life. She learns how to seemingly live without restrictions and how to dance. The novelty quickly wears off as Amy struggles to define herself in her mother's world contrasted with the one driven by social media.
Yvonne’s younger sister, Cancun, doesn’t feel pressured to define herself by the set standards of social media. “I live for myself, and at the end of the day, this is my life,” she said. “I don’t want to live for someone else.”
Cancun said that the Amy character felt lonely but added that the character shouldn’t have gone out of her comfort zone. “Don’t try to be something that you’re not,” she advised.
Yvonne says that most people her age dance to get viral on social media. “It’s a trend, and a way to be more popular…dancing with less clothes gets more views,” she said.
The Cuties spend most of the movie practicing for an upcoming dance competition, and they do their best to emulate the older dancers. They slap each other’s butts; they twerk and shake their hips. They do their best to mimic the dances of the older women they see on social media, but they ultimately fail. The audience watches with disgust and confusion as the Cuties perform the final dance in the movie.
Director Maïmouna Doucouré uses dance as a framework to criticize the over-sexualization of children, but some people, specifically parents, believe that the dances were distasteful. Condemners of the film believe that the young actresses were ultimately over-sexualized in the service of condemning over-sexualization, defeating the purpose.
Elizabeth Kenney, a dance instructor in Brooklyn, doesn’t plan to watch the movie.
“I can’t possibly imagine watching something like that with my husband,” Kenny said. While scanty clothing is a part of dance competitions for young girls, she doesn’t allow such costumes and dancing in her studio. “There’s no sexual moves or music that would imply things like that,” she said, “I don’t believe young children should be dancing like that.”
While some parents feel that Netflix should remove the film from their catalog, others contend that dancing is essential for children as a form of expression.
Irene Berenstein, a physical education instructor, dance enthusiast, and mother, said that dance is a beautiful thing under the right guidance. “Children should be free and creative in the frame of the technique of the dance,” she said.
Unfortunately for Amy and the other Cuties, they didn’t receive any guidance, formal or otherwise. Social media was their guide, and the effects of that guidance were seen in the film.
One of the Cuties finds a used condom on the ground a blows it into a balloon in the film. After yelling at her about cooties, they quickly bring her to Angelica’s apartment and try to clean her mouth with soap and water. Despite their attempts at being older than they actually were, their naivety remained a stark reminder of how much growing up they had to do.
“I think kids need to stay kids,” said Sabrina Yvonne, “and remind them that there’s no pressure to act or dance older than they actually are.” She believes that it’s the responsibility of adults to reinforce this idea in children.
At the climax of the film, Amy gets a panic attack in the middle of the Cuties’ routine at the competition and runs home for her mother’s comfort. The final shot shows Amy playing jump rope with other children in her neighborhood, effectively giving up her mother’s lifestyle and the one the Cuties gave her. While the shot ends the movie on a positive note, it leaves audiences feeling underwhelmed, which is unfortunate considering all that happened in the film.
Despite its shortcomings, Cuties does its best to show the complexities of growing up in a hypersexual world, a nuanced conversation that will be lost to those who decide to skip out on the film.