Divines is a high energy French film about teenagers in the Paris suburbs from first time director Houda Benyamina. Benyamina won the Golden Camera at Cannes last year, and the film was nominated Best Motion Picture – Foreign Language at the Golden Globes. Divines is now on Netflix.
Oulaya Amamra in the lead as Dounia is electrifying in the role. Dounia lives in a Roma banlieue of the city with her drunken mother (Majdouline Idrissi). Her best friend Maimouna (Déborah Lukumuena) is Muslim – her father leads a small mosque. The two long to escape their circumstances. Dounia thinks the answer is, “money, money, money” and she’s willing to do almost anything to get lots of it.
The film opens with Dounia and Maimouna in the streets acting silly, filming themselves with their phones, and giggling. Then we hear Arabic music and see Dounia waiting for Maimouna to get out of prayer time. Seconds later we see Dounia as a tough kid in a shouting match with her teacher, who wants to help her find a job as a receptionist.
The contrast between Dounia and Maimouna as just kids and the dangerous adult world they put themselves into is constantly reinforced in the film. One of the most touching scenes is when the two girls hire themselves out to the local drug dealer Rebecca (a fantastic Jisca Kalvanda). They are standing watch waiting for drug buyers when they engage in a childish fantasy about driving in a luxury convertible. The fantasy was filmed in such a way that the audience was right in it as well. Later, Dounia is selling drugs to someone from the same location and he beats her bloody.
The love and friendship between Dounia and Maimouna is the heart of the film. The two mean everything to each other. The girls spend their free time watching a dance troop practice. They hide high above among the pipes and the rigging.
Dounia is particularly taken with the dancer Djigui (Kevin Mischel) and often goes without Maimouna to watch him rehearse alone. She’s attracted to Djigui. He’s found a way to escape through dance and I think she’s fascinated by the beauty and grace of what he does as much as she is to him as a person. He eventually realizes she’s watching. The two of them have both confrontations and sweet moments.
The girls advance from selling drugs on street corners to stealing gasoline. Then Rebecca sends Dounia to steal thousands from a rich man. While alone with him. In his apartment. The results are disastrous. The final scene is one of operatic drama and stylized beauty.
Divines is completely engaging from start to finish. You care about the characters immediately. The love between the girls, Dounia’s pain with her family situation, the terrifying missteps of youth in a dangerous adult world – it hits right in the gut.
I absolutely recommend Divines.