it aside from that veteran actress Gong Li, the only person here doing anything remotely interesting, is terrific as one of the movie’s main villains — easily glamorous and icy and comfortable wearing the cool mystique that typically cloaks the best Disney villains like a flowing cape. Gong excluded, the movie’s a snooze — lifelessly narrativized, humorless, stale in its action. (Clearly, the film is wanting to take after other works of the wuxia genre, but it’s been made with such machine-like efficiency that it comes more across to us as a bot’s idea of how to make something like 2002’s Hero or 2004’s House of Flying Daggers than a flesh-and-blood filmmaker's.) The songs from the two-decade-old cartoon have been erased, as has its best character, a mischievous mini-dragon voiced by Eddie Murphy. What we now have is a categorically dull coming-of-age story, aggravated by the charismaless Yifei Liu (controversial recently because of her pro-police stance, too), who plays the title role with such unenthusiasm that her face sometimes makes one think of a visage quickly drawn on a piece of printer paper.


The new Mulan is hyper-competent — made so by the book that we cannot detect a beating heart beneath any of its frames. Everything is lavishly presented, but the first thought I had was that it looked expensive, not beautiful. It’s such an impersonal movie that you can’t envision it being made. Did it appear like this? I hate to get lost in comparison — I think when deployed in surplus in a review, it can be tiresome. But I felt something like cinematic whiplash after the people I watched the movie with decided once the credits started to roll that we should watch the 1998 Mulan — just to jog our memories. How did it compare, exactly? Once it started, the sensation, not immediately, anyway, wasn't that it was far and better than its successor (though it ultimately is), but that it was alive — funny, compassionate, humane, plotted with an appropriate admixture of grandeur and intimacy. We love its Mulan, a clever and scrappy young woman voiced with gusto by Ming-Na Wen. It made me feel a lot. To watch the new Mulan is to be fundamentally unchanged.





hat can be said about Disney’s new live-action reworking of 1998’s Mulan other than that it’s just like its forebearer if you edited out all the fun? I can’t come up with many positive things to say about

bed of the master bedroom one afternoon, she sees her mom sobbing with hurt, then try to cover it up when a family member calls her on the phone a couple of moments later.


At school, Amy becomes intrigued by the “Cuties” (or “Mignonnes”), a group of girls who dance together in a troupe after school. Their outward sense of freedom (they talk back to authority figures, do little to hide what they’re actually thinking, get in physical altercations when heated enough) is fascinating to her. Most compelling of all to Amy is their style of dance. These girls' routines — an assemblage of variously angled twerks and provocative head cocks — are more in line with something seen in a strip club than what one might expect from a cadre of 11-year-olds. To the viewer, this dissonance is concerning. But to Amy, the brash personalities of her classmates, combined with their spirited 

way of dance, together present something of an opportunity for an ultimate rebellion — a perfect catharsis to the inner turmoil created by her frustrations at home, where she doesn’t feel listened to and where womanhood is becoming ever more conceptually baffling to her.


Amy manages to soon ingratiate herself into the world of the Cuties, and becomes particularly close with its insolent, latchkey-kid ringleader Angelica (Médina El Aidi-Azouni). Increasingly, she reflects the troupe's own bad behavior. But later, Amy will start to push the limits even by their standards, like when she steals her cousin's phone to post a salacious picture of herself on social media (she thinks it will help get the Cuties to be taken seriously — not merely treated like little girls) or nearly accidentally kills someone whom she has deemed a threat to her standing with her newfound friends and dance partners. 


Cuties is an exceptionally told coming-of-age story — an evocative dramatization of a feeling I’m sure many former 11-year-olds can clearly remember: that they are too world-weary now to be considered a child any longer, and that anyone who doesn’t think them adultish is trying purposely to misunderstand them. In how it represents childhood rebellion, though, Cuties also more boldly brings to the fore something else, which has generated much controversy from usually right-leaning conspiracists who have not seen the movie. The film depicts in part what sort of toll the hypersexualization of women’s bodies in media can take on young girls who do not have the resources and world-awareness to fully understand the larger context surrounding those images, or even really what they’re doing when they try to emulate these visuals that catch their eye. How can it thwart their perception of themselves, and how does it shape their values as they get older?


Doucouré cogently immerses us in the naïvete of its ensemble. Never do any of their decisions feel out of place, even when one might be particularly concerning. She has an ear for dialogue, too — like all this was overheard and quickly scribbled in a notebook. (Doucouré did extensive research and interviewing for about a year and a half to make sure she did this touchy subject justice.) The revelatory Youssouf is the movie’s best asset, expertly conveying how Amy’s internalized exasperation could manifest in the progressively erratic ways it does in the movie. 


Doucouré was initially inspired to make Cuties after seeing a group of young girls, not unlike the ones in the film, partaking in a dance competition during which they similarly performed a perhaps unwittingly sexualized routine in Paris. In an interview with Time, Doucouré said that for her, witnessing this was something of a culture shock for her, and made her think more deeply about the ramifications of hypersexualization in various forms. “There were actually many stories which were so far beyond what you see in the film, and I just did not have the artistic courage to tell those stories on the screen,” Doucouré said. “Stories of young girls who are 12 years old and prostituting themselves. All of these stories just made my blood run cold, and it made me even more determined to make this film, and to speak out about this issue that is so prevalent in today’s society.”


When shooting the dance sequences as seen in “Cuties,” Doucouré used mostly composite shots to ensure that her young actresses were not gratuitously bringing to life some of the more disconcerting moments seen in the feature. Still, the nonetheless affronting photography during some of the dance scenes — intentionally unsettling as to drive in the horror of the problem Doucouré is working to comment on — can sometimes feel more shock-driven than actually effective in what it’s trying to convey. It can be needlessly over the top — particularly so in one scene that sees the eponymous troupe doing a routine on a staircase and the movie, for a moment, transforms into something of a music video where these girls are shot and edited in a way that makes them temporarily interchangeable from standard video vixens. It’s a disquieting conceit that is meant to partially be thought-provoking, but it above all feels more a case of Doucouré going slightly too far. 


Yet, while able to be understood as part of the ultimate critique Doucouré is making by even the most passive of a viewer, the staircase dance sequence in particular has vexingly been widely taken out of context primarily by conservative pundits and conspiracists. It’s gotten to the point that, now, the movie, which was acclaimed on the festival circuit without any hindrances, has associated with it a red badge of controversy. Fear-mongers have not only taken Doucouré’s depiction of the problem she’s probing as a cosigning of it but, unbelievably, as far as a celebration of pedophilia. A #CancelNetflix campaign has ensued; Doucouré has been bombarded with death threats; Fox News anchor Tucker Carlson and Republican Senators Ted Cruz and Josh Hawley have drawn misleading attention to the movie using their platforms. It has gotten to a point where, while idly scrolling through Twitter the other day, I passingly saw that journalist Taylor Lorenz simply retweeted a positive review of the movie and immediately started getting labeled as a pedophile-sympathizer.


The firestorm, exacerbated by misleading promotion by Netflix early on, is frustrating, given the weight of the mischaracterization and also the irony that, if Cuties’ myopic critics actually watched the movie and subsequently grappled with the ideas proffered, they would likely praise it as something vital, ideologically in sync with their views. It’s discouraging to have the conversation around such an impressive debut feature be marred by a bad-faith uproar.

Cuties, though sometimes missing the mark, confirms the arrival of a new, exciting voice. It’s disheartening to have to note the disingenuous mess obfuscating Doucouré’s great work. 

Médina El Aidi-Azouni and Fathia Youssouf in Cuties.

appears to be an informal quest to make sense of the world. As the film opens, Amy and her immigrant family are moving into a new apartment in Paris. In this devout Senegalese-Muslim household, it’s expected that Amy, who is not able to so much as have a cell phone, uphold family traditions as she comes of age. (Part of this entails being considered a woman the moment she starts her period, which confuses her.) But she feels stifled. Something of a breaking point arrives for her when she discovers that her father has stayed behind in Senegal for some time because he is surreptitiously looking for a second wife. Polyamory might be culturally customary, but when Amy sees the toll it quietly takes on her mother (Maïmouna Gueye), it enrages her. As she hides under the

n Cuties (2020), French-Senegalese filmmaker Maïmouna Doucouré’s startling debut feature, 11-year-old heroine Amy (Fathia Youssouf) rebels as part of what 


On Cuties and Mulan

Rebel Rebel September 22, 2020  


Double Feature

Médina El Aidi-Azouni and Fathia Youssouf in "Cuties."