In many ways Divines feels like an amalgamation of all the socially conscious European films of the last decade. There is the French estate setting of Dheepan, the sexual exploitation and feminist rebellion of Fish Tank and the merciless moral message of The Selfish Giant, all infused with a topical tone via the inclusion of refugee camps and riots.
Despite these familiar themes, first-time director Houda Benyamina conjures something new and vital, spinning new angles on old topics. It’s all well and good throwing such big and ‘important’ themes into your films, but so often the result feels like someone has just filmed an angry newspaper editorial. Benyamina’s world and characters feel real and essential, like they’ve been off living their lives for the past 20 years and we’re just dropping in.
Key to that is the authentic and exhilarating bond between Dounia (Oulaya Amamra) and Maimouna (Déborah Lukumuena), two teenage girls who really feel like they’ve been best friends forever. Socially conscious it may be, but thanks to these two, Divines is never dull. They have a playful, combative wit that refuses to be cowed by circumstance and delivers plenty of genuinely hilarious scenes.
Amamra’s performance is what makes this film shine, scaling comedic heights and dramatic lows with no fear. The fact she’s director Benyamina’s younger sister surely helped create such a brave and intimate performance. The sisters give Divines life – Amamra through her ferocity and passion, and Benyamina through her confident style and memorable images.
Divines is a thrilling and compassionate film that shows incredible promise considering it’s Benyamina’s debut feature. The bulk of the film is great in its own right, but the final 15 minutes simply leave you breathless, even if one twist is almost too cruel to believe.
CAST: Oulaya Amrara, Déborah Lukumuena, Kevin Mischel, Jisca Kalvanda, Yasin Houicha
DIRECTOR: Houda Benyamina
WRITERS: Houda Benyamina and Romain Compingt (screenplay, adaptation and dialogue), Malik Rumeau (screenplay), Marcel Beaulieu (script doctor)
SYNOPSIS: A teenage girl from a dysfunctional family in the Paris estates pursues her dream of getting rich via a criminal lifestyle.