This nimble, wise debut feature from Shuchi Talati feels quietly revolutionary in how it depicts the sexual awakening of a teenage girl in India. Depicting such topics as masturbation and the loss of virginity wouldn’t raise an eyebrow for anyone who’s ever glanced at a Judy Blume novel, but as Girls Will Be Girls depicts in an academic microcosm, Indian society expects its young women to uphold to standards to which it doesn’t hold its young men. A remarkably nuanced central performance from Preeti Panigrahi and a willingness to tackle the discrepancies between the genders head on demonstrate a film with far more on its mind than a simple coming of age narrative.
Mira (Panigrahi) is a 16-year-old student who excels so much she’s been chosen as the first ever female head pupil of her strict boarding school in the Himalayas. It’s a role she takes very seriously, and is keen to keep her unruly classmates in check and uphold the standards of the institution. Then she meets new student Sri (Kesav Binoy Kiron) and it stirs an interest she’s never had before. Soon, she’s spending as many stole moments as she can with the new boy, threatening her social and academic standing, and her relationship with her mother Anila (Kani Kusrati).
Much more than a tale of a youthful dalliance, Talati’s central focus is actually on the fraying bonds between Mira and Anila. Anila begins to worry about about her daughter’s relationship with Sri. She doesn’t really object to her daughter’s newfound rebellious edge in principle, but she knows that the school frowns on anything they would term as permissive behaviour from its female students. She insists that Sri come to their house to study so she can keep an eye on the pair. Yet, Sri’s presence begins to stir something in Anila too, creating a strange, lowkey love triangle over which mother and daughter butt heads.
That’s not to say Talati isn’t intimately interested in the sweet, nervous romance between Mira and Sri. Jih-E Peng‘s camera is as inspired by the tiny moments of hands brushing against each other or the soft intake of breath at a kiss as it is the majestic mountainous backdrop. Panigrahi and Kiron have a palpable chemistry together, the fruitful product of the exhaustive search that found these two first-time performers. It’s a delicate dance between subtlety and frankness, and Talati and her two leads navigate each step perfectly.
Also performing a high-wire act is Kusrati, who somehow manages to touch upon the inappropriateness of some of her behaviour towards Sri without seeming creepy or predatory. There’s a wistfulness in Anila for a part of her youth she feels she never got to really experience, and she is of course flattered when the courteous Sri is slightly flirtatious towards her. There’s also the implication that its partly the determination to force a young woman’s desires into a hermetic space deep within that leads to these desires rearing their heads and bursting loose in unwanted ways.
Less subtle, although incredibly tense, is the depiction of aggressive masculinity reasserting itself against the elevation of a woman into traditional positions of male authority. Mira reports some boys for taking upskirt photos of some of the girls. The teachers suspend the boys for a brief period, but do nothing to address the wider issue other than lecture the girls about the lengths of their skirts. Mira finds herself faced with retribution from the boys she got suspended. It’s an instance of genuine threat, but slightly undermines Talati’s incisive depiction of the unmentioned, passive machinations of patriarchal dominance. It also feels like an atypically melodramatic way of forcing a reconciliation between Mira and Anila.
Yet Girls Will Be Girls is one of the more impressive and assured debuts you will see, and is one of the highlights of Sundance overall. It is a stirring coming of age drama besides anything else, but for the most part it keeps all kinds of other thematic plates spinning in perfect unison too. There’s perhaps a little bit of excess fat on the narrative but otherwise there is little to fault. It would be a film to be proud of at any stage of a filmmaker’s career. As a first feature it’s remarkable.