If there ever were a film that made you wish you could sit down with its maker and find out where she stands with the morally perturbing narrative, it would be Adura Onashile’s Sundance selection, Girl. Regardless of its efforts to maintain compassionate neutrality, an experience of this emotionally bewildering work compels a biased reaction. Which side you lean to will invariably be influenced by your own scars. And suppose you happen to be one with the plausible ocean of people who will find their individual experiences to be following a metronomic movement. In that case, Girl will leave you haunted and disturbed.

Director Onashile’s extensive understanding of PTSD and abuse may seem a smidge too hard-headed at times, which may also trigger you. But if you can get yourself to look beyond the ghosts that inhabit your mind, you’ll find Girl to be as soft and sensible as the British director intended it to be. At the end of its daunting duration, it is an empathetic hug for the adolescent who deserves a better childhood and the young adult who did not deserve to go through everything she did.

Motherhood has emerged as an enthralling subject for filmmakers to examine with arbitrary ferocity and unprejudiced understanding. Onashile gently places the mother and daughter in the latter. As you observe Grace’s unstable parenting, you must also consider the unbreakable persistence of her trauma. You are also to have your heart broken by the abuse that 11-year-old Ama endures in all her fuzzy innocence.

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Grace’s actions and reactions are invariably influenced by a scarred past, which she can’t seem to escape, and her present is riddled with random acts of hate crime. Grace is the picture of a young mother constantly chased by the trigger responses left behind by her traumatic experiences as a girl. She is played with overwhelming verisimilitude by the promising Deborah Lukumuena. When you see her getting a drink thrown on her head and having garbage shoved through the mail slot of her door, you begin to unwittingly feel a sense of sympathy toward her problematic protectiveness of her daughter. The very next moment, you will be furious at Grace for just how manipulative she can be towards Ama, a little girl reasonably excited to explore the newness that puberty brings.

'Sundance' Review: Girl (2023)
Déborah Lukumuena and Le’Shantey Bonsu appear in Girl by Adura Onasile

Snippets of Grace’s agonizing experience are scattered impulsively throughout the narrative, mimicking the authentic pattern of random gushes of pain that afflict a traumatized person. Onashile’s clear conception of a mangled consciousness is evident every time Grace means to keep Ama safe and ends up doing the opposite of that.

Starting a new life in Glasgow doesn’t come easy for Grace. She is constantly plagued by anxiety and needs to count numbers to avoid a complete meltdown while working. Visions of her past haunt Grace as often as visions of who she wishes she could be. Grace was possibly the victim of a violent sexual assault when she was in her adolescence. However, it is never mentioned directly in the film for the sake of an organic evocation of emotions. Ama had never heard the mention of a father, suggesting that she may be born of the devastating event that Grace went through when she was only 14.

Grace has brought up Ama with a concocted fairytale of sorts. Down the line, Grace starts believing in the fiction she had designed to protect Ama from the truth. As the line between protection and suffocation gets blurry, Grace resorts to egregious means to keep Ama imprisoned in her delusion of safety. The stark antithesis of the airlessness of their room is found by Ama through her little binoculars, looking into the lights and the lives of the freer people. Little Ama loves her mother with all her heart. Maybe even to a fault. But the allure of the outside world and her new friend Fiona’s liberating aura are too enticing for a girl just entering puberty.

Onashile makes it increasingly difficult to root for Grace at times. The most challenging instance to accept without rage is when Grace treats Ama with unfathomable contempt for getting her period. To think about the damaging effect of such abuse on a little girl’s mind makes it an increasingly taxing task to consider Grace’s issues with an open mind. It is mindful of the narrative to include the patience of Samuel into the mix. But Lisa can’t be blamed for her quietly enraged concern for Ama’s safety.

Although it is heartwarming to witness Grace’s rite of passage that leads to her acceptance of Ama’s coming of age, the story does not devote enough time to it to make it credible. Especially considering Onashile’s sensible yet brave approach toward establishing Grace and Ama’s trauma as a festering wound, the convenient reconciliation brought on by the happy ending feels a bit too obligatory.

Girl was screened at the Sundance Film Festival 2023

Girl (2023) Links: IMDb

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