For the first time in an age, I’m back at the British Film Institute’s LGBT festival, in the only screen that matters.  This evening NFT1 hosted Céline Sciamma’s 2014 feature ‘Girlhood’ (originally screened at last year’s London Film Festival) about the lives and trials of Marieme and her friends in a group of estates on the outskirts of Paris, and into the city itself.

This gang of girls play both ends, winning us over with dancing together to Rihanna’s ‘Diamonds’ in a hotel room that they share, and make their own party in, wearing shoplifted clothes because they are too young and too skint to go out.  But they also extort money from schoolmates, intimidate shop assistants and a prospective employer, and fight with other cliques. This might cause us moments of disquiet, but it also means that all the characters, at least all the female characters, feel properly rounded. It’s only really the men that seem mostly one-dimensional, but perhaps that is itself a comment: the girls are threatened with subjugation by a chauvinist culture – at best a life of limits within marriage and at worst a life of limits through violence and exploitation.  So maybe most of the men are just arseholes..

The film starts with Marieme returning from an all-girl American Football match, soundtracked with thumping, vaguely threatening electronica reminiscent of ‘Drive’.  As the team moves away from the field their loud, jubilant chat dissipates with every group that splinters off to head home, before finally evaporating in the presence of a boy and the projects.

From there we see Marieme downhearted, rejected by school and revealing that she, her sisters and her mother struggle under the yoke of her elder brother Djibril.  It’s clear that he’s up to no good in the projects, but is a somebody around the place, and that his ‘honour’ is central to how ‘his women’ must behave.

It looks as though this dispiriting set-up is only going to get worse as Marieme – soon to be called Vic (short for victoire ? I wonder if it’s only an English interpretation that this could also be short for victime…) – encounters the brash trio of Lady, Adiatou and Fily.  This is the first of many moments in the film that caused me to fear a descent into violence and desperate circumstances, and that tension continues throughout the film, with much of the last 40 minutes feeling like one long held breath. But the girls slowly, haltingly make friends and from there we are treated to their gradual exploration of their shared dynamic – for good and ill.

Screening as this has at the BFI’s Flare festival, you would be forgiven for expecting much more overt queerness than Girlhood delivers. The extra connection between Marieme and Lady is palpable, but Marieme is drawn to her brother’s friend Ismaël. Is this genuine, however, or the result of learned behaviour and expectation ? As the film develops we are also shown Marieme concealing her breasts, disguising her hair, and dressing in a much more masculine way. These much subtler shades of lesbianism and transgenderism, alongside Marieme’s burgeoning self-realisation and feminism, provide the link to the festival, and perhaps show just how much at home these issues are now in non-LGBT-specific cinema. They sit alongside an exposition of the negativity, and lack of opportunity of such spaces and lives, but also the energy, inventiveness, spirit and camaraderie of the same.

I can’t talk story much further without potentially spoiling some of the delicious uncertainty of the later stages of the film. Suffice to say that I am glad that it doesn’t offer a simple ending. Marieme’s attempts to carve out something for herself offer us heart-stirring glimpses of her family – especially her relationship with her sisters – and the highs and lows of being part of a gang of friends, playing with each other, making fun with/of each other, and standing up for each other.

Although Girlhood is vulnerable to some criticism in terms of its story – it leans towards being episodic rather than following a definite path – the quality of the acting, the chemistry and make-up of the gang, and the look of the picture provide more than enough compensation. There’s one shot in particular, through the glass of a high-rise as Marieme seeks to escape the cleaning career opening up before her, that is breathtaking. As was pointed out during our introduction to the film, this picture has achieved something terrific in its capturing of beautiful images, principally of the black women that this film is proud to exclusively address – allowing time to linger on interactions, on eyes, faces, hands, bodies – alone and together – of a type and in ways that Hollywood wouldn’t understand, and that only the big screen can do justice to.