Collaborative Blogging, Film Reviews

Cuties, or: Dance Mignonnes

It’s true that the Blog Collab doesn’t shy away from controversy–and this week’s film is at the center of one of the internet’s most intense debates right now. In response to Cuties, people have called for a boycott of Netflix and even leveled death threats at the film’s director. Netflix certainly handled the marketing of this film incredibly badly…but what about the movie’s content itself? Let’s unpack it, shall we?

The Film:

Cuties (Mignonnes)

The Premise:

As she becomes part of a competitive dance team, preteen Amy’s religious upbringing increasingly clashes with the provocative moves and attitudes of her new friends.

The Ramble:

Having just moved to a new apartment in Paris, 11-year-old Amy and her younger brother are eager to stake a claim on their own rooms. However, these plans are thwarted when their mother makes it clear that one of the rooms is strictly off-limits. What could that possibly be about?

A preteen girl looks longingly down from one side of a wrought iron fence.

Part of a Senegalese immigrant family, Amy dresses modestly and attends a weekly religious service at a local mosque. The services are quiet and emphasize women remaining obedient servants of God and, ultimately, their husbands.

On the other end of the spectrum are the Cuties, a group of girls who dress in revealing clothing, rebel against teachers, and practice extremely suggestive dance routines. To lonely Amy, the Cuties have carved out their own freedom, and befriending one of the girls who lives in her building opens up a wholly different way of existing in the world.

Two girls sit side by side in the drum of a clothes dryer.

Practicing dance routines in secret, wearing her little brother’s t-shirts as crop tops, and posting selfies from a stolen phone, Amy begins trying on an identity far removed from that of well-behaved, obedient immigrant daughter. When she learns of her father’s plans to bring a second wife with him from Senegal and witnesses her mother’s devastated response, Amy is increasingly eager to embrace her new persona.

After girl group leader Angelica has a falling out with one of the girls, Amy sees her opportunity to become a permanent part of the Cuties. Absorbing sexually explicit music videos in secret, Amy takes the girls’ choreography and pushes it to an even greater extreme with dance moves that are pretty damn disturbing. Of course, the girls are keen to adopt changes to their routine to make them stand out in an upcoming competition.

In a school restroom, four girls crowd around a phone one is holding, while another girl stands slightly apart from the group.

As Amy attempts to balance her commitment to the dance team with the demands of preparing for her father’s wedding, responsibilities begin to fall through the cracks. Enraging both her overbearing aunt and the Cuties team, Amy skips out on helping her aunt only to miss the girls’ competition tryout. Can Amy ever do enough to earn her spot back on the dance crew…and is that really what she wants?

The Rating:

3.5/5 Pink Panther Heads

Ignore the boycotts and general outrage about this film–those are largely down to Netflix’s own marketing and promotion. The film itself and the director, Maïmouna Doucouré, don’t deserve to be the targets of anger (and even death threats) when it comments on the hypersexualization of children rather than glorifying it. It does feel worth examining that this story–told by a Black woman and immigrant–is the subject of so much vitriol when exploitative shows like Dance Moms have aired for years with no one batting an eye.

I will say this film isn’t free of its own problems. There are scenes that don’t seem necessary, especially as there are many, many shots of the girls performing extremely sexual dance moves. A lot of these scenes don’t successfully balance commentary with the feeling of exploitation, and it’s pretty disturbing to watch them. I think Doucouré could have found a creative approach to commenting on the sexualization of young girls in a way that didn’t involve so many problematic scenes.

However, it’s a shame (if not a surprise) that internet outrage has overshadowed the film’s nuanced approaches to girlhood, immigrant experiences, and identity.

Would my unproblematically cute blog wife join this one’s dance crew without hesitation or take up a nice jump rope hobby instead? Read her review to find out!

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Collaborative Blogging, Film Reviews

Jezebel, or: Nothing Like the Real Thing

It’s really difficult to remember the earlier days of the internet at times: the dial-up speeds, the AOL chat rooms, the GeoCities web pages that made questionable use of Flash graphics. Even then, it was true that the internet was for porn…except of a more pixely, low-resolution variety. This week’s film follows a webcam girl from the late ’90s, and it’s quite a fascinating world. And surprisingly empowering in some ways, though, as with porn, its appeal is a deeply subjective topic.

The Film:

Jezebel (2019)

The Premise:

A young woman living with her sister begins to make her own way by working as a webcam girl in the late 1990s.

The Ramble:

In the late ’90s, Sabrina barely makes a living as a phone sex operator. With two siblings to look out for, a young daughter, and a live-in boyfriend, the shared one-bedroom apartment feels tiny. What’s more is that the family matriarch has been unwell in the hospital for some time…and those bills are adding up.

A woman closes her eyes while on the phone, reclining on a bed wearing a low-cut nightdress.

To help keep the family afloat, Sabrina suggests that her 19-year-old sister Tiffany answer a job ad for an internet model gig–nudity required.

With Sabrina’s help, Tiffany is hired on the spot by brother and sister duo Chuck and Vicky. When asked for her name in the chat room, Tiffany gives the name Jezebel. There are few rules in the chat room beyond no nudity (except in private sessions), no onscreen penetration (which can yield a prostitution charge), and no personal contact information (for safety and financial reasons).

A young Black woman wearing overalls sits next to a white woman holding a computer keyboard, dressed in lingerie.

In the free chat room, Vicky and Tiffany dress in bikinis or lingerie and type flirty messages to their spectators, waiting for one to pay for a private room. Once in a private room, Tiffany is meant to keep the person on the other side of the screen logged in for as long as possible. Vicky does show Tiffany many of the tricks of the trade–none of the sex acts performed onscreen are real, from playing with sex toys to spanking.

The pay is decent, and, with help from her sister, Tiffany learns quickly how to get the most of her clients. She begins to genuinely have affection for a fetish client, Bobby, who responds well to seeing feet and being scolded or ignored. Tiffany even opens up enough to tell Bobby after she’s been to her mother’s funeral, and to give him her PO box and phone number.

A Black woman wearing a long wig sits on the floor of a darkened room, avoiding looking at the camera. Text shows chat messages asking the woman to speak to the sender.

It isn’t long before Tiffany has saved enough money for her own apartment. However, things begin to unravel when a client calls Tiffany the n-word in the chat, and everyone merely tells her to grow thicker skin. Soon after, Chuck calls out Tiffany for ignoring Bobby in a private chat room, despite this being one of his fetishes.

With an offer to move on to the adult film industry, Tiffany isn’t too devastated when she is fired. But when Chuck and Vicky reflect on how much money Tiffany is bringing in, will she return…with demands of her own?

The Rating:

3.5/5 Pink Panther Heads

I really enjoy how quiet and ordinary this film feels in many respects. There are elements of Tiffany’s work as a webcam girl that seem creepy or unsettling, and there are certainly exploitative people and businesses in this realm. However, the focus is on Tiffany and the development of her confidence and power rather than the gritty spiral out of control pattern that films with similar themes typically follow. In the work Tiffany does, it’s not so much what she does that’s important so much as whether she has a say in it. Part of Tiffany’s power is in her willingness to label herself Jezebel (quite literally), as well as her reclamation of the word.

While Tiffany’s journey provides the main story line, the relationship between sisters is also essential. Sabrina introduces her sister to the world of sex work, and this is more or less in line with any other sort of job referral. Her experience as a phone sex operator means Sabrina has an understanding of sexual power, as well as the ways in which sex work from a distance can mean greater control. She is there to offer advice and words of caution. Sex work is another way to earn money, which our characters and the film treat with pragmatism and a lack of melodrama.

My biggest complaint about this film is the lack of structure that leaves a lot of questions unanswered. What will happen when Tiffany finally meets Bobby? Will she follow in her sister’s footsteps and pursue a long-term arrangement with him? And what was with Tiffany’s fantasy about one of the other webcam girls–was it exclusively male gaze-y? Because of the nature of this film as sort of a slice of life story, so many questions remain!

Would my lovely blog wife let this one watch her paint her toenails or block it immediately? Find out in her review!

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Collaborative Blogging, Film Reviews

Eve’s Bayou, or: Batiste by Fire

Louisiana: home to crayfish, spicy Creole dishes with extra hot sauce, snakes slithering across tree branches, and fireflies that sing love songs in Cajun French to one twinkling star in particular? Nope–wrong movie. This week’s film may not feature the New Orleans jazz or Mardi Gras celebrations of The Princess & the Frog (the only other Louisiana-set film that springs immediately to mind), but it has more than its share of humidity, moody swamp scenes, and small-town Southern drama. Do all of these elements combine to create a satisfyingly spicy pot of jambalaya?

The Film:

Eve’s Bayou

The Premise:

Over the course of a hot Louisiana summer, 10-year-old Eve uncovers secrets about her family that lead to her to take drastic action.

The Ramble:

In 1960s Louisiana, narrator Eve Batiste pulls no punches, telling us right off the bat that she was 10 when she killed her father. Say what, now?

The Batiste family descends from General Jean Paul Batiste and Eve, an enslaved woman for whom the Creole-settled bayou is named. By the ’60s, the family is one of the most prosperous in the area, throwing any number of swanky, well-attended parties. It’s during one such party that tomboyish Eve, always in the shadow of her older sister Cisely, runs off. As a result, Eve sees her father Louis, a respected doctor, sneaking around with a married woman. After Cisely convinces her sister this can’t have possibly been true, Eve buries the memory and pretends nothing ever happened.

A man and his teenage daughter dance in the middle of a crowded room of onlookers.

However, Eve isn’t the only one with suspicions–her uncle Harry nearly has a drunken fistfight with Louis. After the fight breaks up, Aunt Mozelle drives her inebriated husband home…though a car crash on the rainy night leads to his sudden death. A psychic counselor, Aunt Mozelle believes she is cursed as she has lost three husbands to tragic, violent deaths.

A woman wearing a headscarf holds a cigarette, a girl walking beside her and smiling.

Mozelle draws a distinction between herself and the fortune teller down at the market, who is rumored to speak nonsense and practice voodoo. However, after having her fortune told, Eve’s mother Roz becomes convinced something ominous is in the near future. Roz decides the only solution is to keep her children inside for the duration of the summer, never letting them out of her sight.

Two women in elegant dresses walk side by side, a swampy landscape behind them.

Though her younger brother remains oblivious, Eve is a keen observer, using the time stuck inside to notice just how frequently her father is absent and how strained her parents’ marriage is. Meanwhile, Cisely becomes increasingly rebellious, chopping her hair off in favor of a more grown-up style and speaking back to her mother in defense of her father.

In a dark twist, a child is killed after he is hit by a bus. This spells good news for the Batiste children, who are finally allowed outside again now that the foretold danger has passed. However, Cisely reveals to Eve that their father recently sexually assaulted her. Vowing to protect her sister, Eve begins planting seeds of doubt in the mind of Mr. Mereaux, an unsuspecting man whose wife is having an affair with Louis. Eve also pays a visit to the mysterious psychic, demanding to know how one goes about killing someone with voodoo.

Has Eve set in motion a plan that will yield more than she’s bargained for?

The Rating:

4/5 Pink Panther Heads

Though the plot is itself somewhat melodramatic, it feels appropriate for the atmosphere, a Southern Gothic in which everyone is stifled by the heat and long-buried secrets. There are beautifully shot scenes of the Louisiana swamp and its looming cypress trees for days, all the better to emphasize the turmoil in our characters’ lives.

Men are a part of the plot, but this is very much a story about women and sisterhood. Aunt Mozelle in particular is a standout character who is the rock of her family when her brother consistently disappoints. She cares deeply for her family and is a role model to Eve with the strength, independence, and compassion she demonstrates. It seems Mozelle is destined to repeat a cycle of heartbreak for the rest of her life, but it makes her no less willing to continue to open up her heart. Coincidentally, she continues the subtheme of this blog, women who look good smoking, and she does it with ease.

Beyond female power and community, the nature of memory is crucial to the unfolding of the film’s events. The way Eve and Cisely in particular question their memories of specific acts has the power to change utterly how they relate to their family and each other. The effect of memories surfacing or failing to surface in these characters’ minds is chilling.

The only thing that doesn’t sit well with me is the way sexual assault is at the center of the concept of memory as unstable and ever-changing. The way it’s set up in the film, there seem to be two different stories of what happened between Louis and Cisely that are equally likely. This is for dramatic effect, as it makes us at the audience wrestle with Eve’s actions. Is it really relevant, though? Louis is the adult here, and, whatever happened, it feels gross to suggest that Cisely was in control of their relationship in a way that may diminish the actions of her father.

Would my blog wife eagerly consult with this one about her future or loudly denounce its fortunetelling skills? Read her review to find out!