When Cuties aired at the 2020 Sundance Film Festival, no one could have predicted that it would create the colossal tsunami of internet debates. Shortly before the film’s debut, Netflix purchased the rights to distribute the film. Despite positive critiques from film assessors, Cuties, or Mignonnes, has divided general viewership. The French independent film quickly became a culture war talking point following its September 9 American release on Netflix. The film has a current critic score of 91% on Rotten Tomatoes, despite a minuscule audience score of 11%.
Is it because the general public is too daft to comprehend multifaceted art? Is the vast range in score due to pissed off Facebook post readers? Because in the internet age, human beings react without knowing the full scope of things? Because we are quick to pull the literal and figurative trigger? Perhaps the camera shots and angles are too perverted? Or, could it be a mix of everything?
Cuties tackles burdensome questions. It challenges the morality of the viewer as well as society as a whole. Cuties is disturbing to watch because the world is a disturbing place to live.
The consistent word I’ve found through social media posts regarding Cuties is “pedophile.” Whether it be projecting the future weaponization of the film or its perverse in-the-moment possibilities. The term is tossed around loosely, though its use is valid in context.
Cuties tells the coming-of-age story of Amy. An 11-year-old-girl, Amy is the daughter of Senegalese Muslim immigrants. The film depicts the protagonist’s struggle with coexisting amongst two worlds. Amy is a trapeze artist juggling devout faith and religious responsibilities with the pressures and influences of being an adolescent woman in 21st century France.
To rebel and pursue individuality, Amy joins a local dance group – the Cuties. Headed by group leader Angelica, the group is all female. The girls dress and dance scandalously – a byproduct of the world they see on screens.
Influenced by women’s objectification in advertisements and music videos, Amy and the rest of the Cuties chase perceived adulthood without realizing it. The girls are young, and their interpretation of the world isn’t matured yet.
As a viewer, I rooted for Amy. Not for the expressive belly shirts or tight pants or the dance competition – but rather for her escape from the onscreen turmoil she faced while away from her Cuties teammates. Amy was chasing a feeling of control – control of the world around her and of her destiny. However, without realizing it, Amy’s pursuit pulled her into a world where the individual rarely has control.
My brief description hardly incites a negative reaction. It sounds like an inspiring story. So why the controversy?
Director and writer Maïmouna Doucouré uses aggressive camera shots to paint a larger picture. While the film is rather conservative in explicit, graphic nature, it often incorporates close-up shots of the young girls dancing. Given their adult-inspired attire and their dances’ unabashed choreography, these continued shots are disturbing to watch.
They leave the viewer feeling dirty. In such scenes, I found that I directed my gaze towards blurred out walls and backdrops to protect my soul. There is an early scene where an unnamed female dancer exposes her breasts in a TikTok-style clip. Her age and identity are unknown, though it is perceived that she is a teenager as well.
Difference in Opinion
These moments are where the viewership splits. For many, these suggestive shots are too much to validate watching. They sparked the hashtag “Cancel Netflix.” A Missouri senator, Josh Hawley, wrote a letter requesting the film’s removal from Netflix’s platform.
Dismissal of such perspectives would be irresponsible. Cuties debuted on Netflix amid the Jeffrey Epstein controversy. During the long-overdue Me Too era. In weeks leading up to the film’s release, several police operations successfully recovered numerous abducted children in the US. And there’s still the alleged Wayfair scandal.
From-the-hip reactions are valid. Coming to grips with the world takes a strong stomach. Witnessing the evils of the world depicted through a film starring children is challenging. Yet, it is for that reason that Cuties is a success despite its divisive nature.
Behind the gut-wrenching close-ups and all-too-familiar circumstances, there is a neatly woven story about the unfortunate truth that young people, especially young women, are subjected too.
Amy and the rest of the Cuties seek notoriety and status through dance. They are children that are embracing a twisted world. Media and popular culture paints with a crude brush, and the girls become its prey.
There is a scene where Amy takes an explicit photo – the viewers, thankfully, do not see the image. Another moment features a reprehensible security guard. This particular scene highlights the unjust social structure of men and women throughout the world. The patrolman catches the girls breaking into a building, but lets them go because one of them flirts with him. A second officer expresses disgust as the scene closes.
The Larger Impact of Cuties
Cuties accomplishes something magnificent. Every moment of abhorrence opens a conversation. Its wreaking repugnance offers a glimpse into a reality that we often choose to ignore.
Children should not be exploited – in any imaginable way. They should not be converted into the patriarchy. But the same people who slam Cuties for being a part of the mess ignore that they are cogs in the machine. Unfortunately, the outrage comes because the film gained notoriety through the most popular streaming service on earth. Had the film stayed in the independent sphere, no one would have cared.
Cuties and Doucouré created conversations. One about the evils of predatory behaviors. One about media and the internet. Another about the self and introspective thinking. About devout faith and individualism.
Despite its unpleasant angles and direction, Cuties does a far greater service for the world than against it. It calls us all out, especially those in power, on our bullshit and hypocrisy. Exposes the dangerous fallout that various media creates. It emphasizes the importance of tangible familial connections and the constant soul searching we all experience.
In all, Cuties is a crucial film to watch. You will be uncertain at times. You will ask questions. I had an opinion about the artistic purpose and found myself weighing art against humanity hours later. Should such a story be told with child actors? Are they put at risk because of the project? Is risk part of the fight against evil?
You’ll be left with enough thoughts to last a lifetime.