IF you’re a critic in 2020, you’ve often the jarring duty of dealing with the controversy surrounding a film, play, TV series, or book before you even get to the matter in hand: is it any good or not?

Of course, given it’s 2020, most controversies are, with wearying inevitability, generated entirely online by those who haven’t seen or read the work in question.

So let’s quickly summarise the rage that’s greeted the French movie Mignonnes, or Cuties in English – even the title is problematic as you’ll see. Cuties has been accused of ‘pro-paedophilia’. US Republican Senator Ted Cruz wants an investigation into whether distributor Netflix violated child pornography laws. Comments online called for anyone involved with the film to have their children taken away.

The film is by the French-Senaglese director Maïmouna Doucouré, who drew on her own life growing up in a refugee family. It’s the story of 11-year-old Amy, who lives in a rough housing estate with her strict Islamic African family. Amy struggles to cope with the repressive, misogynistic world at home, while being drawn to what she sees as the ‘freedom’ of being a young woman in Western culture. Amy secretly befriends a group of pre-teen dancers, who call themselves The Cuties. They enter a talent show, hoping to change their lives.

However, what unfolds is no French-immigrant version of Billy Elliot. The film is sometimes too unsettling to watch, but if we care about what’s happening to our children in this culture we’ve created then we at least need to heed the message of this important but deeply flawed work.

Outrage has mostly centred on marketing – which is fitting given that most people condemning the film haven’t seen it. The film’s Netflix poster showed the group of 11-year-old dancers posing in an adult, sexualised fashion. It’s disturbing and repellent. The original French movie poster, though, showed the same group but in a spoof of Sex and the City, with the young girls running down a street carrying shopping bags. However, within that French poster (which attracted little controversy) there was still a message – albeit much more subtle – of girls being sexualised too early by our culture: the children wear bras, in the original French poster, over their clothing.

The French poster points to the film’s real intent – critiquing how mainstream culture hypersexualises the world our children inhabit. Netflix committed the very sin the director damns. The company apologised but it was too late. The Netflix poster alone was enough to seal the fate of the film, and now debate is being silenced on a very relevant – though profoundly troubling and disturbing – film.

Cuties takes a scalpel to Islam, the West, and how both cultures treat women, especially girls. In Islam, the film says, women are humiliated by the strictures placed on them. In the West, culture tells young girls that fulfilment, success, validation – everything – depends upon them being hypersexualised fantasy objects. At home, Amy’s mother is degraded by her polygamous husband. Amy must wear a hijab and pray. Some Islamic voices have also protested about the film.

Outside the home, Amy is exposed to pornography online, the sexualisation of young women in entertainment – and the pervasive idea that to be free, she must be overtly sexual. We should note that Doucouré worked sensitively with her cast and their parents. That, evidently, doesn’t mean some girls won’t later regret their role – it merely means Doucouré took her duty of care seriously.

Doucouré’s strength and weakness lies in how she addresses Western culture’s hypersexualisation of the young. To shock us to our senses, Doucouré takes her subject to the edge of acceptability and then goes beyond it. However, the question to ask is this: we’ve been wilfully blind to such grotesqueries in our culture for too long, we’ve ignored the excesses of the entertainment and advertising industries and the messages they’ve been promoting to impressionable children, especially girls – so did we need the shock tactics of Doucouré to wake us up? Would we be having this discussion if she hadn’t pushed her film to an almost unacceptable extent? The flip side, of course, is that Doucouré has pushed it too far and so repelled viewers who’ll now never listen to her message.

The most disturbing moments of the film come when the girls dance – mimicking the sexualised routines of adult pop stars. Doucouré shoots these scenes like MTV videos – increasing the grotesque, unsettling nature of what’s on screen. However, Doucouré cleverly changes her shooting style at the end of such scenes showing us the girls not as they imagine themselves to be but as they really are – not MTV stars, but clumsy pre-teens mimicking adults. The girls’ desperate desire to lose their innocence in a world which has no time for innocence is heartbreaking.

One of the smartest visual metaphors in the film is that of clothing. Women are judged by what they wear – a veil, a crop top, defines a girl. At the end of the film, with Amy safe having rejected the worst of both Islam and the West, she simply walks into the street dressed in such nondescript clothes she could be either a boy or a girl and returns to her life as a child, playing in the street.

The reaction to Cuties proves we’re a deeply confused society. Our culture jeopardises children with its constant sexualisation, yet we become outraged at a film which warns of these dangers.

I’ve talked to folk who’ve watched the film and those who haven’t. Those who haven’t, think it’s revolting. Those who have, approach it with nuance, with most seeing an important message but deeply uncomfortable with the means of delivery.

When considering a work of art we should ask two questions: was it worth making? Was it made well? Cuties was worth making – it has something to say. Was it made well? Yes, up to a point, however, in its righteous anger it risks going too far and deterring those who should see it. Would I watch it again? No. But then I wouldn’t rewatch many disturbing films despite the important message they convey.

Is Cuties pro-paedophilia? Absolutely not. Do I understand the anger directed towards it? Completely. Such complexity is the stuff of art.

Our columns are a platform for writers to express their opinions. They do not necessarily represent the views of The Herald.