Before Mira (Preeti Panigrahi), a headstrong and academically gifted 16-year-old, met Sri (Kesav Binoy Kiron), she didn’t think about love. She focused on her classwork and dreamed of perfect scores. Their courtship, a series of endearing encounters that start with a night of stargazing, changes her priorities. Now, Mira studies Sri’s body, fantasizes about their kisses and competes for his attention.
The drama of Shuchi Talati’s debut feature Girls Will Be Girls unfurls at the speed of a realization. It is a slow and deliberate narrative, with a pace that reflects the emotional currents of Mira’s life. Acclimating to its lingering rhythm, its loitering sensibility, takes time. Premiering in the World Dramatic Competition at Sundance, Talati’s film offers a sensitive and distinctive take on the fraught dynamics between mothers and daughters.
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The film opens with a celebration. Mira is announced as Head Prefect, a role that has never been held by a girl at her socially conservative mix-gendered boarding school in the Himalayas. The appointment is a sign of progress and the ambitious student takes it seriously. When Mira assumes her position at the podium, preparing to lead the recitation of the institution’s pledge, she does so with an earnest pride and confidence. She scans the crowd before her, studying the faces of her classmates, including Sri, the new boy who has transferred from an international school in Hong Kong.
Mira, we will come to learn, is always watching. Talati and her DP Jih-E Peng often use low-angle shots of the teenager observing her surroundings to underscore the young woman’s perceptiveness. Newcomer Panigrahi helps shape the character’s self-assurance with a performance that stays curious about the layers of Mira’s confidence. So much of her conviction comes from knowledge and compliance with rules. When the young woman becomes enthralled with Sri, we notice some of that self-possession slip away.
Talati, who wrote the screenplay, efficiently sets up Mira and Sri’s relationship. The teenagers meet through astrology club and quickly begin spending all their time together. When Mira’s mom, Anila (Kani Kusruti), becomes suspicious of her daughter sneaking around, she stages a blunt intervention. Anila warns Mira of the dangers of this distraction; if the teenager fails her exams, her father will not fault Mira, but her mother. Here, and in other places, Talati’s screenplay manages to communicate a lifetime of history with one poignant statement. There’s another moment earlier in the film, when Sri asks if Mira is still afraid of her mother. “No,” Mira says matter-of-factly. “Now, I just can’t stand her.”
Mira grows more irritable with her mother as her relationship with Sri progresses. To keep a watchful eye, Anila proposes that the two “friends” (as Mira insists they are) can only hang out at Mira’s home. This arrangement activates the heart of the film: an emotional love triangle between Mira, Sri and Anila.
When Talati focuses on the relationship between these three, it’s clear this is the film’s true interest. More than a fanciful romance between two teenage lovers, Girls Will Be Girls is about gendered power. As Sri spends more time at Mira’s house, his attention wavers from his girlfriend to her mother. Nothing untoward happens, but the energy of these encounters is thick with tension.
The women are competing. Why and for what reason? In narratives about mothers and their daughters, envy is often the silent thread running through the cruel exchanges. Not only does Girls Will Be Girls say the quiet part out loud, it also interrogates that notion, becoming an unnerving, character-driven chamber drama. Sri’s charm takes on calculated undertones, Mira’s confidence shakes in the face of unexpected feelings and Anila’s motivations for hawkishly watching her daughter seem more complicated. Panigrahi and Kusruti’s invigorating performances in this section deepen our understanding of Mira and Anila’s relationship, a caustic mess of bitter jabs, eye-rolls and cold shoulders.
Girls Will Be Girls loses some of its intrigue in its third act, where Talati opts for conclusions that seem too pat and predictable for her smart narrative. It doesn’t undo the work Talati took to get here, but it does make you wish the director had stayed with her story a little while longer.
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