Some general rules to follow if you don’t want people to think you made a pedophile movie:

1) Try not to name your film “Cuties.” I know this can be a very tempting choice, especially when your film centers around a child dance group called Cuties, but please exercise restraint. 

2) If your film includes a somewhat sexualized children’s dance troupe, try not to name them Cuties. This should help with rule 1. 

3) Do not use an image of scantily clad children striking suggestive poses as the primary marketing image for the film. 

It is not difficult to see why “Cuties,” the French film released on Netflix last week, has attracted controversy: the story surrounding the film is as interesting as the film itself. In August, Netflix went into damage control mode after its promotional poster featuring tween girls in skimpy outfits and short synopsis describing girls’ fascination with twerking attracted widespread outrage. Netflix apologized, explaining that this was an award-winning French film (translation: it’s art; you angry peasants wouldn’t get it), and changed the poster and synopsis and sold the film as more of a coming-of-age dance movie. The film’s release saw a whole new wave of outrage, with politicians, athletes and global celebrities demanding the film’s removal from the site.

The film, by first-time director Maïmouna Doucouré, tells the story of Amy (Fathia Youssouf), an 11-year-old who recently moved from Senegal to France with her mother (Maïmouna Gueye), younger brother and possibly a baby sibling who appears maybe once or twice before disappearing. She has some sort of awakening when, in a spit-take inducing reveal, the suggestively dancing, leather-pants-wearing neighbor shaking her ass in the laundry room turns out to be a similarly aged, if not slightly younger girl, Angelica (Médina El Aidi-Azouni). Following this newfound curiosity, Amy joins this girl’s clique/dance troupe, Cuties, despite them having bullied her. The Cuties have their sights set on a big dance competition and spend their days rehearsing, shopping and attempting to seduce older boys and men. Meanwhile, Amy is forced to accept her father’s impending arrival and wedding to a second, younger wife. Over the course of an unspecified but seemingly short amount of time, infighting amongst the girls, tensions among Amy’s conservative Muslim family and generic growing up ensue.

After watching “Cuties,” I am fairly confident it was not meant to be a pedophile movie. However, in a world where people are convinced Hillary Clinton is masterminding a child sex slave market in the basement of a pizza place, it is glaringly obvious that Netflix would attempt to force kiddie porn upon us under the guise of some sort of highfalutin foreign indie art film. Add in the fact that Barack and Michelle Obama are in-house producers at Netflix and you get pitchfork-toting hordes of amateur Twitter detectives constructing a trail of pedophile breadcrumbs into Epstein’s pocketbook. But while “Cuties” is not exactly the pedophilia-normalizing softcore child porno existing in the eyes of its detractors, it fails to reach the cultural critique it grasps at.

Describing the dance scenes of “Cuties” solely as dance scenes is about as apt as describing Hooters solely as a food service establishment. These scenes are shot as short music videos, cutting between closeups of skin and barely-covered body parts as they gyrate to the music. At the final performance, they stare into the camera while suggestively sucking on their fingers, and in a surprising turn recreate Teyana Taylor’s floor-pounding dance from Kanye West’s “Fade.” While this dance is clearly meant to disgust the viewer, the camerawork makes sure to force as much kiddie ass into our faces as possible. If you are looking at the screen (which one typically does while watching a movie), there is nowhere else to look but right into the crotch of the young actresses.

You know when you are alone yet feel so embarrassed towards what is happening on screen that you turn the volume down? “Cuties” brought more than just that type of cringe. Watching the dance scenes felt as though the FBI was about to bust through my door. Or at the very least, I would be added to some sort of registry of sex offenders. Forget “Tenet” or whatever the latest big theatrical draw is. You don’t need to risk infected theatergoers coughing popcorn droplets straight into your mouth for an exhilarating cinematic experience. Watching “Cuties” on your own device should get the job done.

Now, taking away the dance scenes, was the film any good? While “Cuties” is inseparable from its dance scenes, there does exist around 90 minutes of film surrounding them. What transpires in that hour and a half is a film that does a good job with its main character, establishes some themes, has some nice colors, but not much else. Amy’s feelings of isolation are thoroughly explored, but the other characters hardly exist as characters at all. The Cuties are the primary characters of the film, but I could not tell you two of their names or anything about them other than their general brattyness and irritability. While you do sympathize with Amy’s plight, she, too, is difficult to like, as she makes such poor choices as impaling a classmate’s hand with a pen, and even shoves a girl into a dirty river and watches her flail (whether she made it out or drowned is one among many unresolved ends) all while facing no consequences. 

Amy’s journey into sexualization goes well beyond the dance group, as after watching some WAP-esque music video she tries to offer her body to an older relative in exchange for his phone. Clearly, Doucouré meant to show how pop culture is harmfully affecting young girls, as within the context of the film, watching twerking on Youtube leads to propositioning your own family. While this was clear to me, it wasn’t to many of the supposed viewers who hadn’t seen the film, and Doucouré had to explain herself. Yet the part of the film dealing with Amy’s Muslim Senegalese family is less concrete. We learn of the oppressive nature of child marriages and Amy’s mother’s forced polygamy (which is illegal in France, yet everyone in the film just goes along with it), and at times this culture seems to be set up as a binary against the digital sex culture. But it’s not entirely clear what statement (if any) Doucouré is making beyond just “this is bad; this is worse.”

Much like Amy in the final scene where she rejects both her dance uniform and wedding dress in favor of some plain ol’ blue jeans, the film doesn’t stick firmly in any direction and ends up having its dance scenes unfortunately stand out as the memorable part. And that is why “Cuties” might be known for a while as a pedophile movie.

 Harry Rubin | harry.rubin@yale.edu