One day every mother must come to terms with the fact that their little girls will grow into women. As those changes begin to take place, so does the realization that the way the world treats them will shift. Adura Onshile’s feature-length directorial debut, “Girl,” follows mother-daughter duo Grace (Déborah Lukumuena) and Ama (Le’Shantey Bonsu), as their uniquely close relationship spars against life in Glasgow and Ama’s pubescent development. Upon Ama’s first period and single-digit armpit hairs, Grace devolves within the memory of her own girlhood traumas, and projects these fears onto her daughter in ways that will test them both.

The atmosphere of “Girl” is certainly the result of careful curation. The picturesque cinematography is in a constant exchange between impressionist nature flashbacks, beautifully muddled beneath a mirage of heat, and neon-laden nighttime Glasgow, beautifully absorbed in the skin of the characters as they encounter the darkness they fear. However, despite the beauty of its imagery, distant framing enforces that to Grace and Ama, none of these spaces feel safe. There is an ominous withdrawal of these characters from their environments, expertly pulling their interiorities into the environment of which they do not feel like they belong. 

Onshile’s background as a playwright shows through in “Girl,” but not always in the best of ways. While the character-driven nature is highlighted by the otherwise simplistic approach, the film’s pacing suffers. The staging and trajectory of the script doesn’t feel like it’s adapted for the larger scope, both in terms of place and pace, that film allows. The sequences that make up each act are scrappy on account of the editing being far sharper than the pace of the actual story. 

The treatment of Grace’s trauma is beautifully portrayed with maximum restraint so as not to exploit the event, but to show just enough to let the audience know what occurred. “Girl” asserts that the definition of girlhood is entirely shaped by subjective experience and questions the implication of that truth as a mother. Grace takes the concept of sheltering her daughter to the ultimate level and this contrasts with the age of the impetus of exploring the world outside of parental influence. This serves to be an excellent foundation of the film and a moving source of difference between mother and daughter that gets layered with the feeling of displacement in a white country that connects them. 

There is the fear of violence that comes with being a woman and the fear of violence that comes with being Black, and as Grace holds both of these in her hands, she is left confused and confronted with where to put them. This emotional battle that she carries makes the writing of her character versatile: we feel for her even as we recognize that her behavior will have long-lasting effects on Ama. The audience is planted into her mind with similar confoundment, as we struggle to reconcile with her approach even as we understand her motivations. Yet this sets the stage for a moving double coming-of-age film as Grace and Ama grow alongside each other. 

Lukumuena and Bonsu deliver wonderfully physical performances. In a script where dialogue is not the primary voice of emotion, both actresses hold their characters in their bodies. Lukumuena carries all of Grace’s anxiety, fear, and isolation in hunched shoulders, tight lips, and cautious movement. Without speaking, we always know her state of mind. Bonsu on the other hand is opposite in her body, open and curious. She possesses the tactile quality involved in girlhood’s learning and exploration, and discovering what it means to be in your body. 

“Girl” is a disjointed, but ultimately tender depiction of a double coming-of-age and an argument for the mutual influence mothers and daughters have on their own flourishing. Delicate, intimate, and personal, “Girl,” through hypnotic atmospheres and corporeal performances, showcases the ability of dynamic change through the release of one’s demons and the embrace of your ability to overcome. 

Cinema Femme Sundance and Slamdance coverage is sponsored by Noisefloor Sound Solutions and the Siskel Film Center.

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