Divines (Houda Benyamina, 2016)
Centered around the rebellious teenager Dounia, Oulaya Amamra, Divines tells a coming of age story of a rebellious teenager as she tries to find her path to both adulthood and early wealth. Coming of age stories about women are always welcome, as men seem to dominate the genre, and this one specifically sets out to prove its uniqueness by blending the traditional coming of age drama with a plentiful helping of melodrama. While this mixture isn’t quite as smooth as I would have preferred, the result is something unique that has continued to capture my thoughts even after viewing more films.
We are first introduced to Dounia as she distracts her best friend Maimouna, Déborah Lukumuena, from her prayers at a make-shift mosque. Her rebelliousness is further portrayed as we watch her shoplift, and get kicked out of school in subsequent scenes. We do get a potential reason for this behavior soon after as we are shown a scene of her and her drunken mother being fired from the bar that they both work at, and then proceed home to the slum they live in. This opening is, unfortunately, the weakest part of the film, and highlights the director Houda Benyamina’s relative inexperience. The first twenty minutes feel like an afterthought as if the rest of the story was already written and filmed but some sort of establishment needed to be included to bring believability to the characters. An additional ten minutes to let the characters develop slightly more organically would not have been a begrudged addition to the only 90-minute film.
If Benyamina was dead set on keeping the film at 90 minutes, there is at least one additional plotline that fell flat. Throughout the film, Dounia has frequent scenes where she watches, in an eerily stalkerish way, grocery security guide/ aspiring dancer Djigui, Kevin Mishel, as he attempts to get the lead role in a local dance performance. After weeks of voyeurism, Dounia is confronted by Djigui and is eventually thrown into an awkward pseudo relationship. While I do believe that the watching and lusting over the male body constitutes an important level of character development for Dounia, the budding/ seemingly serious relationship seemed unnecessary and very sudden.
Weaknesses aside, Divines develops into a beautiful melodrama. Dounia’s interactions with Rebecca, Jisca Kalvanda, feel like an extremely genuine predator prey relationship. Dounia wants so badly to be an adult and find the fortune that she couldn’t hope to attain otherwise, that she deludes herself in fantasies of what her future will be while committing crimes for Rebecca. And Rebecca completely believably see’s Dounia’s passion and obedience and quickly finds the way in which she can best take advantage of the situation. The result is that Dounia does quickly grow up, though not in the way that she necessarily envisioned.
And that highlights what really is the strength of the film. Amamra’s portrayal of Dounia is engrossing. No matter how poor decisions she makes, I manage to feel both sympathetic to her while still understanding why she made the decisions that she did. It’s rare that you can watch a film where the protagonist makes bad decision after bad decision and yet still sympathize for her. The realness behind Dounia has me forgiving most if not all of Divines’s flaws.