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Girl (2023): Film Review

Girl, from writer/director Adura Onashile, is a poignant, hopeful character study that prioritises the importance of ‘self’ in a mother/daughter relationship.

It’s necessary, for a relationship to flourish, that it allows for growth. Girl, written and directed by Adura Onashile, is a film that intimately explores the relationship between a mother and a daughter, but also the relationship with one’s past and one’s self. It’s a film that offers poignant parallels, a rumination on the effects of trauma, and the importance of being brave enough to choose to live life fully.

Grace (Déborah Lukumuena) and her daughter, Ama (Le’shantey Bonsu), live a fairly isolated life in a Glaswegian council estate that Grace has crafted, perhaps near obsessively, as a means of protecting her child from the traumas of her own past. But as Ama’s inquisitive nature and desire to explore the world outside their window grows, Grace is forced to confront her fears if she wants their relationship to survive and for them both to have the chance of a better life.

There are times during Girl that it’d be relatively easy to villainise Grace, such as when she denies her daughter the freedom to do something as simple as play with a friend after school. But the film is much more complex than that, and explores Grace as a young woman who is close to buckling under the pressure of a traumatic past. At the beginning, there’s a desperation to the way Grace is with Ama, with constant reminders that she’ll keep her safe and a clear reluctance whenever she has to leave for work. Everything Grace does is for Ama, but her inability to confront her own trauma means that Ama is left almost stifling under her overprotectiveness, longing for a bit of freedom to the point of sneaking out on the balcony at night to peer at her neighbours through binoculars.

loud and clear reviews girl film 2023 movie sundance festival
Le’Shantey Bonsu and Déborah Lukumuena in Girl by Adura Onashile, an official selection of the World Cinema Dramatic Competition at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival. (barry crerar, Courtesy of Sundance Institute.)

Ama’s burgeoning friendship with classmate Fiona (Liana Turner) is sweet, but it also highlights Ama’s sheltered nature. She thinks she’s dying when she gets her period, and can’t understand why anyone wouldn’t want to live in their building, even as it proves unsafe. Her reluctance to be open and her tendency to jump to the worst conclusions are learned behaviours, unusually mature for a girl on the verge of eleven, and Grace and Ama’s extremely close-knit relationship becomes quite unhealthy for the both of them as the film progresses.

Grace is suffering from PTSD and her sole worry is about keeping Ama safe. She disregards help from her neighbours, social worker Lisa (Ayesha Antoine) and new accommodation manager Samuel (Danny Sapani), as well as ignoring her own mental wellbeing. But Ama is hitting puberty and starting to ask questions, keen to explore the world outside their cramped flat and make a friend, and this proves to be a trigger for her mother. Soon the strain proves to be a little too much, and they go from sharing baths and sleeping curled together, to barely talking and sleeping as far apart as their cramped double bed will allow.

Onashile uses Grace’s fear of Ama growing up as a means of communicating the source of her trauma, having had Ama, forcibly, at such a young age. It’s an incredibly provocative way of exploring Grace’s past. She’s barely twenty five years old, frightened and alone in a foreign country, and struggling to reconcile that Ama’s looming teenage years can be different from her own. Lukumuena gives a stunning performance: timid, frightened and vulnerable, but ready to shout and claw at any moment if it means keeping her daughter safe. Her outpouring of emotion towards the end of the film is so raw and poignant, and really hammers into perspective the overwhelming nature of her behaviour throughout the film so far. Her bond with Bonsu – who gives a really impressive debut – feels particularly palpable, both when they’re playing together and having fun, but also when Grace is heaving out breaths in a panic and Ama is clinging tightly to her. It’s a really interesting dynamic, and the titular Girl could be both Ama and Grace, as it’s a film that is as much about exploring the nature of them as a mother and daughter as it is about exploring them as individuals.

Girl is subtle but powerful. It gives the answers to its own questions pretty early on, allowing its audience the chance to experience Grace and Ama’s story through emotional connection, rather than a search for narrative. There are no graphic flashbacks, just brief images and a creeping sense of panic and dread, that are more than enough to convey meaning and give weight to the material. It’s a character piece about the cyclical nature of generational trauma, and the way in which it’s important for Grace to look after herself as both a mother and a survivor. But the film ends hopefully, with Grace’s desperation changing into resolution, and her promise to keep ‘you’ safe sounds much more like she’s talking to both Ama and herself. The glimpses of Grace’s own desire for freedom, of wearing a fun dress and going dancing, feel achievable in this version of her life, rather than something she needs to mourn for.

loud and clear reviews girl film 2023 movie sundance festival
Déborah Lukumuena and Le’Shantey Bonsu in Girl by Adura Onashile, an official selection of the World Cinema Dramatic Competition at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival. (barry crerar, Courtesy of Sundance Institute.)

Onashile has crafted something incredibly moving and evocative with Girl. Its music is really effective, thanks to composer Ré Olunuga, and the cinematography – from Tasha Back – alternates between being claustrophobic and intimate in a way that really efficiently mirrors the changing dynamics in Grace and Ama’s relationship. It’s a poignant film that doesn’t get unnecessarily dark, instead choosing to highlight the importance of focusing on the light, asking for help and reminding us that the best version of yourself is one that feels safe and loved.

Girl premiered at the Sundance Film Festival on January 22, 2023. Read our Sundance reviews!

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