As sadly expected, the outcry over a French coming-of-age drama has turned it into a must-see movie.
Well, that was expected. After an initial firestorm of displeasure over the initial poster for Netflix’s
The situation began when the first poster dropped in mid-August. While the film played without incident (and mostly positive reviews) at this year’s Sundance festival, the Netflix poster (which was not the original theatrical artwork) inspired instant condemnation, not just at the poster itself (which presented its four pre-teen stars wearing stereotypical dance recital outfits) but the unseen movie. Even a cursory glance at the 75-second trailer, or a minute spent on Wikipedia, would have informed anyone of the film’s true nature and intent, but who’s got time to double-check their instant assumptions? The filmmaker was chased off social media and received death threats, while Netflix quickly replaced the poster and apologized. Now that the movie is out there for public consumption, well, it hasn’t exactly gotten better.
In a classic “depiction equals endorsement” firestorm, the film has come under fire for the very thing it seeks to condemn. Yes, there are scenes where the actresses engage in “twerking” and use their would-be feminine whiles to get out of trouble, and the movie looks down upon these moments with a critical (but sympathetic) eye. If anything, the film follows the formula of Mean Girls, where our naive protagonist becomes the villain of her own story by acting out in ways that put even her new (more socially aware) friends at a distance. If this movie were about the dangers of underage drinking, you’d have to show kids getting drunk. This is the “Peter Rabbit lets Peter trigger Mr. McGregor’s blackberry allergy!” on proverbial steroids.
The TV-MA rating is mostly for profanity, and the film is a variation on the likes of Bend it Like Beckham and Whip It. Most of the oft-shared screenshots would be right at home in an episode of Dance Moms, a show that has run mostly without controversy for nine years and 224 episodes. It’s a personal, character-specific drama about a young girl who feels torn between a traditionalist gender-based roles (where she’s expected to cook dinner and smile as her father marries a second wife) and her exciting new friends who are entering a dance competition and see music video-style sexualization as the path to victory. It’s not a subtle film, and you can argue that its imagery crosses a line, but its intentions are pretty clear.
#CancelNetflix was the number one trending topic on Twitter this past Thursday. 626,000 people have signed a petition to cancel their subscriptions over the film. Conservative advocacy group Parents Television Council said in a statement Thursday that it “stands by its earlier criticism that the TV-MA-rated film sexualizes children.” Senator John Hawley sent a letter to Netflix to “please immediately remove this film from your platform.” Other GOP members of Congress, having nothing more important to deal with, have recommended DOJ action (over a film that wasn’t made in America). The overall social media reaction to the film, well, do a Twitter search and knock yourself out. I’m not going to share the social media responses to critics like myself who actually watched and critiqued the film, but I will admit that “Okay groomer” is an almost clever variation on “Okay boomer.”
Whether this is genuine (if misinformed) displeasure or a coordinated effort by disingenuous parties, Cuties, a foreign-language pre-teen coming of age story that otherwise would have been mostly ignored, is today’s fourth-biggest movie. The film is not and never was intended as pedophilia propaganda or pedo-bait or any other slur you want to throw at it and it wouldn’t have even found much of an audience if not for online controversy (fueled by SEO-friendly media coverage) over its initial poster and now, via out-of-context screenshots, the movie itself. While these online controversies don’t move the needle for theatrical movies (think the pre-release handwringing over Tully’s grim treatment of post-partum depression), the ability to “see for yourself” just by staying at home and clicking a button made this outcome inevitable.
Beyond another “depiction doesn’t equal endorsement” debate, it’s another case of those desiring diverse stories from non-white storytellers then take issue when those stories don’t play out in an idealized fashion. It also turned what was a net-positive (an indie female-centric drama with a diverse cast from a Black newbie director) into a net-negative (seeing the poster in terms of pop culture’s tendency to over-sexualize non-white girls and women). This French drama about a poor Islamic young girl who (spoiler?) eventually finds a happy medium between the conflicting expectations of her traditionalist upbringing and modern pop culture, is a genuine Netflix hit. If any are watching it for prurient reasons, well, that’s the fault of the hand-wringers who brought the film to the public’s attention.