Cuties: Much ado about something: the poster art that caused the controversy.
Remember when Cuties were orange and tasty and sold by the box? They still are, just don’t expect any promotional tie-ins with Maïmouna Doucouré’s controversial debut feature, the straight-arrow coming-of-age dramedy Cuties. Why the recently trending hashtag #CancelNetflix, the streaming service guilty of showing the film? Cutie pies from Trump’s Orange Army are once again up in arms, this time projecting feelings about themselves by alleging that a film clearly intended to criticize the sexualization of young children is in fact a clarion call for pedophiles worldwide.
We start out of order, with a parting shot — a closeup of frightened and over-made-up 11-year-old Amy (Fathia Youssouf) fills the screen. From there, we flash back, and watch and wait as the narrative brings us up to date. Another mystery — the one behind the vacant room in the Parisian slum that Amy, her mother, and brother just moved into — is quickly solved: it’s reserved for her father’s new bride. While polygamous Pop prepares for his arrival from Senegal, Muslim mother Mariam (Maïmouna Gueye) sees to it that Amy is the youngest person in attendance at the daily prayer ritual. Not surprisingly, the group stresses modesty in dress and the obligation to obey one’s husband.
Nowhere is it written “Thou Shalt Not Twerk.” No sooner does new girl in school Amy spy classmate Angelica (Médina El Aidi-Azouni) busting a few moves in the laundry room than she wants to be part of her clique, an elitist foursome looking to become an internet sensation by auditioning for a local dance contest. It begins with assimilation through imitation, as Amy learns the hard way that an Afro is more difficult to iron than is Angelica’s baby-fine hair. Her initial attempt to make inroads is met with harsh consequences: getting caught spying on a practice session results in a rock to the forehead. Still she perseveres, swiping with envy through the group’s Instagram photos, longing to belong.
By way of consolation, Amy’s ancient Auntie informs the young woman that she was already married when she had her first period. She prays the same fate will soon befall her niece. As for sex ed, what pre-teen didn’t first learn about coitus from the kids at the playground? When I was nine years old, a neighbor pal told me that babies came from two naked people kissing while standing up. Is that any different from Coumba (Esther Gohourou) saying that the used pink “balloon” she found in the woods and proceeded to blow up couldn’t have been a condom because of its color? The crisis of depravity whipped up by its detractors — the majority of whom criticize the movie sight-unseen — is a beautiful fraud. If anything, Doucouré is pointing out the dangers inherent in the giggly naïveté of a group of overly-curious Kardashian wannabes.
The kids attend school, and for the most part, have at least one parent at home. But not one adult takes the time to explain to the children the ways of the web. Not wanting her daughter to be fouled by the horrors of cyberspace, Mariam refuses to buy the child a cell phone. But that doesn’t stop Amy from stealing her father’s. And at some point, it’s a parent’s responsibility to stress that being “liked” shouldn’t entail emulating the manner and style of strippers on the internet.
Netflix is guilty of many things — start with the small screen banishment of films by Orson Welles and Martin Scorsese to entice subscribers — but pandering to child molesters is not one of them. It’s rare for a film to justify its use of child sexualization to make a point. This isn't pornography. It's a film for parents, not children. As such, Cuties stands as an online updating of such previous squeam-inducing cautionary fables as Thirteen, Kids, and L.I.E. ★★★★
Video on Demand New Release Roundup
The Secrets We Keep — It’s 1959, and while at the park with her son, Maja (Noomi Rapace) notices what appears to be a new addition to the neighborhood: the Nazi (Joel Kinnemann) who killed her sister and left her for dead. A hammer to the head and a ride in the trunk lead to an open grave and a cocked gun. Alas, she can’t bring herself to kill him, call the cops, or let him go, so Maja decides to bring her work home with her, much to the chagrin of soon-to-be complicit husband Lewis (Chris Messina). The production design is spot-on and the cast strictly top shelf — it’s a charge watching Rapace chain-smoke her way to vindication. Not based on a true story and better for it, until writer-director Yuval Adler’s plotting springs a few leaks. (How is it the audience can hear Lewis and the goose-stepper quarrel in the basement while the cop upstairs turns a deaf ear?) Not a patch on In a Glass Cage, but a good time nonetheless. 2020 — S.M. ★★★
The Sit-In: Harry Belafonte Hosts The Tonight Show — H-ee-e-e-e-ere's Harry! He was the first person of any color who Johnny Carson asked to guest-host a week’s worth of The Tonight Show. Nebraska-born Carson didn’t feel qualified to talk about the Civil Rights Movement, but recognizing both the significance and immediacy of the subject — the date was February 1968 — he asked Harry Belafonte to assume a spot behind a desk heretofore reserved exclusively for white males. At a time when blacks were largely ignored on television, Belafonte was a household name, thanks to his work on stage, screen, and music. (He’s credited with Americanizing calypso.) “He was a black artist with a white fan base,” observes the Clive Davis Institute’s Jason King, “at a time when there was still legal segregation.” Director Yoruba Richen’s pithy time capsule of the era shows a culture in desperate need of healing. Belafonte seized every opportunity to engender discussion of critical issues, most notably racial equality among Black Americans. (The next time a black man would hold a similar seat of power was Arsenio Hall.) Carson gave Belafonte creative control, right down to the guest list: a catalog of activists, celebrity and otherwise, that included Lena Horne, Sidney Poitier, Aretha Franklin, Nipsy Russell, the Smothers Brothers, Zero Mostel, Robert Kennedy, Dr. Martin Luther King, etc. When might we expect a blu-ray release of all five shows? Never. Videotape was expensive; the two-inch quad recordings that housed the shows were degaussed and recycled immediately upon broadcast. It wasn’t until the early ’70s that Johnny Carson paid, out of pocket, to have the shows preserved. All that remains of Belafonte’s week from February 1968 are a half-hour with Dr. King, another half hour with Robert Kennedy, and Leon Bibb singing Leonard Cohen’s “Suzanne.” Add to that a local collector wise enough to retain audio recordings of the first two nights, and we shall be thankful for what we have. Now streaming on Peacock. 2019 — S.M. ★★★