Director: Houda Benyamina
Cast: Oulaya Amamra, Déborah Lukumuena, Jisca Kalvanda, Kevin Mischel
Watch Divines online in the UK: Netflix UK
How far would you go for money? For Dounia (Amamra), nothing will stop her from acquiring wealth. Spending her youth between one of the many run-down districts of Paris and the Roma camp her family lives in, Dounia wiles away her time with best friend Maimouna (Lukumuena), by stealing from the supermarket and spying on the dancers at the town’s theatre. She’s determined to make a name for herself, escape her life of perpetual poverty, and break the rules that society has set out for her, though, so she desperately seeks out lucrative employment. When she sees the chance to work for local gang leader Rebecca (Kalvanda), she goes for it, and as she’s asked to complete more and more dangerous tasks, she accepts. She’ll get rich or die trying.
Divines is probably best described as the grandchild of La Haine and the little sister of Girlhood, with its ruthless depiction of the disgruntled French youth abandoned by the system and boldly of tackling the issue. It’s brutal and heart-breaking, and the character’s barely stop to give us a breather, as they hurtle towards the finish line. This is a group of teenagers with very few options ahead of them and whose lives were determined to be mediocre from the start; the fact that they will go to any length to change this is hard to witness, and Amamra is particularly impressive in the lead role. She’s charming and witty, able to present a fierce and vulnerable character with ease. She may be director Houda Benyamina’s sister, but this doesn’t dampen her acting; she’s a talented performer and proves her ability time and again.
For a debut feature, Divines hardly seems like a first-time production. With its intense storyline and standout performances, Benyamina has made an excellent film. She has a way with the camera that allows her to make the smallest of scenes seem exhilarating. This is particularly noticeable when Dounia and Maimouna imagine the life of luxury they intend to lead, as they wait for customers. With some very clever sound design and camerawork, the pair actually look like they are driving a Ferrari, clinking glasses of champagne, and imploring good-looking men to hitch a ride with them. It ignites the imagination of the characters and the audience, and is one of the film’s many highlights.
That said, there are some moments where the film doesn’t seem to know where it’s going, particularly when it comes to the romance between Dounia and Djigui (Mischel). While the actors have excellent chemistry and their interactions are laced with sexual tension, their storyline seems too far removed from the rest of the story. Yes, Djigui may be one of the security guards at the supermarket that Dounia and Maimouna steal from, and the lead dancer at the theatre where they hang out, but that doesn’t mean he is necessary to the plot. In fact, had his character been taken out of the story completely, things probably wouldn’t have changed much. This, however, hardly changes the fact that Divines is an excellent debut.
Divines is available exclusively on Netflix UK, as part of a £7.49 monthly subscription.