Adura Onashile’s debut feature, Girl, which is centered on the dynamic of an overprotective mother and an inquisitive daughter, is a delicate telling of trauma and coming of age. With such heavy themes, it’s impressive that first-time feature director handles them with such dedicated passion and precision. But she does so with such grace and intimacy that it’ll be easy to empathize with these characters.
Grace (Déborah Lukumuena) and Ama (Le’Shantey Bonsu) have a deep bond like in many mother-daughter relationships. To protect them from outsiders, the careful and anxious Grace protects Ama by establishing and enforcing strict rules. As they begin a new life in Glasgow, Scotland, things begin to change. Grace’s anxiety from a past trauma seems to get the best of her while Ama’s puberty and growing curiosity interests her in the surrounding world. Soon, Ama discovers that the origin stories that her mother has been telling her for years are fairy tales. Ultimately, this realization begins to shatter both their worlds, changing their relationship forever.
While Grace’s safety net begins to unravel around her, overwhelming feelings of debilitating anxiety and fear overtake her. Visually, Onashile represents these moments through ambiguous flashbacks while Lukumuena counts to reel herself back to reality. A bit of a slow burn, Girl often teeters on a thin line of impressionistic storytelling. The flashbacks are cursory and rarely tell anything about Grace’s trauma besides the fact that it exists. Additionally, Ama’s blossoming friendship with her neighbor Fiona takes a while to get going.
But this storytelling structure only makes the film that much more impactful. When Grace finally comes to learn about Ama’s worldly interests, this sets off harsher punishments and restrictions, leading Ama towards feeling like a prisoner in her own existence. It takes a while for the script to evolve to these points of realizations just as it does Grace. Nevertheless, this carefully crafted story about healing is handled with compassion every step of the way.
Nashile’s poignant film elegantly captures the fears of growing up with relentless uncertainty ahead. Ama, in particular, learns about things like periods and deodorant use from her friend Fiona instead of her own mother. If anything, these moments serve as a great reminder for parents to facilitate safe spaces for their children to confide in them. And just as much as it celebrates Ama being able to learn at a pace that is appropriate for her age, it also gives great insight into the dangers of parents not taking up the role of educator in their children’s lives. Specifically, once safe learning opportunities are removed in the household, resentment is established, and children will go seeking information elsewhere.
The emotionally gripping Girl, written with tenderness, directed with impactful execution, and acted with such fiery conviction is sincere in how it depicts overprotective parenthood. With well-timed flashbacks to visualize trauma and how it influences raising a child, the story feels like a personal experience that one can easily relate to even without having these same experiences. Nashile’s film occupies a tender spirit, only enhanced through her powerful direction. A delicate and beautifully scripted mother-daughter relationship saturated with care and precision, Girl is one of the festival’s most triumphant debuts.
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Girl premiered at the 2023 Sundance Film Festival on January 22. The film is 87 minutes long and not yet rated.