“A movie that is fighting to be heard, screaming for its voice to break through the endless stream of chatter and clutter.”
by Ken Bakely
Here is a movie that is fighting to be heard, screaming for its voice to break through the endless stream of chatter and clutter. Houda Benyamina’s Divines lets you know where it’s going no later than the opening credits; they are presented over a vertical video montage, the names of the cast and crew displayed in the form of black, translucent captions seen in Snapchats. Benyamina is abjectly opposed to we as viewers becoming detached participants. We must be there. We must see this characters. We must see what they are going through. We cannot ignore them in the same way that the societal system around them has.
In this way, the comparisons made between this movie and last year’s Girlhood make sense. Both features tell stories of the lives of lower-class, minority, teenage girls in Paris who find themselves in over their head when embarking on a rapid spiral which takes them to both the highest heights and the lowest valleys. In the case of Divines, the girl at the center is named Dounia (Oulaya Amamra). Living in the projects and attending low-rung schools, she feels that her situation is hopelessly stagnant, but that there has to be some way to rise up out of this insular poverty.
She and her best friend Maimouna (Déborah Lukumuena) soon find themselves employed by Rebecca (Jisca Kalvanda), a hard-as-nails drug dealer who offers them a chance to hustle her stock in exchange for some quick cash. This arrangement is risky and the fallout would be insurmountable, but boy is it ever lucrative. Soon – far sooner than they could have imagined – Dounia and Maimouna find themselves raking in some respectable numbers. They drop out of school. They go on shopping sprees. They reach for the stars. It seems great. However, this dramatic reversal of fortunes, especially in this business and at their young age, comes with a hefty blowback, and it eventually becomes uncomfortably possible that this whole thing could come crashing down in the most unpredictable of ways.
Benyamina is able to find a balance between adoring her characters and staying clear of idolizing them. She does not attempt to dispel the fact that Dounia and Maimouna are dealing in some awfully shady stuff, and that there is a certain illegitimacy to the way they are going about this attempt to rise out of poverty. In time, the two receive their comeuppance – possibly excessively so, in the form of a truly over-the-top and bombastic finale.
Yet Divines shows us their fears and hopes in exuberantly energetic ways. One particularly memorable scene comes to mind when they imagine buying a sports car and driving around the city, heading to a lavish party at a villa and picking up a hypothetical hot guy on their way there. In reality, the two are only bounding around on a scooter in their run-down development, but the film indulges in their childlike fun, adding the distant sound effects of music playing, people talking, and champagne corks popping. It is in this moment when you realize how this comes at a point when our main characters are feeling vestiges of power and potential for the first time in their lives. It’s a ravishing moment of both obvious and subtle outlining.
But through it all, even in the most chaotic of moments, there is Dounia. Oulaya Amamra plays her with a startling degree of accessibility, communicating nonverbally with a kind of distinct naturalism, the sign of an actress unafraid to dive into her character’s psyche and give life to the depths therein. When she’s onscreen with someone else, be it Maimouna, Rebecca, or Djigui (Kevin Mischel), an aspiring dancer who she can’t keep her eye off, Amamra’s performance remains whole – never overconfident, but never second-guessing a decision.
This rhetoric could be applied to Divines as a whole. Benyamina presents her film with more full-bodied enthusiasm than the vast majority of first-time directors can muster. Sometimes this works to her, and the movie’s, detriment – I’m still not sold on how quickly the plot whips itself into a frenzy in the final act – but the whole thing still comes off as an engaging, complicated look at the messy results when one combines socioeconomic fears, adolescent volatility, and wild ambitions.