The only Indian feature film at the Sundance Film Festival this year is debut director Shuchi Talati’s Girls Will Be Girls, a complex mother-daughter coming-of-age story premiering at the World Cinema Dramatic Competition. Tender feelings emerge in the whirlpool of burgeoning sexual awareness of its teenage female protagonist Mira (Preeti Panigrahi), but is there a sure way to grow up? There are no easy answers. Confident and deeply empathetic, Girls Will Be Girls is a stirring debut – one that is destined to be a Sundance breakout this year. (Also read: Skywalkers A Love Story review: An exhilarating experience from start to finish)
For sixteen year-old Mira is the first female head prefect of her strict boarding school in the Himalayas. She is prim and proper, but never a mean girl. She takes on this new responsibility with seriousness, leading the school pledge during the morning assembly and reprimanding other girls for their dress code. It is with the arrival of a new student Sri (Kesav Binoy Kiron)- a handsome, well-travelled charmer when her calculated social standing begins to shake. She hides her interest in Sri from her strict mother Anila (Kani Kusruti), who is a former student of the school. Anila lives nearby, and unlike the other girls in her dorm, Sri stays with her on some days. She is a watchful parent, having been in her daughter’s place just a few years ago, aware of the unassuming glances they share when Sri is invited to study with Mira under her supervision.
Yet, a gentle but terrifying shift in tone occurs when Mira begins to notice Anila as her adversary in the private space. Suddenly, she is competing with her mother to vouch for Sri’s attention as they share a few milkshakes and even plan a secret birthday party. Anila even shows Sri how to dance, coming in between the few precious moments Mira wants to have with his boyfriend. The tension rises and rises, until a gripping interpersonal exchange ensures. Talati handles the shift in tone with confidence and sensitivity, observing Anila and Mira from a delicate, empathetic distance. There are entire scenes where mother and daughter barely speak, yet their glances make room for a thrilling undercurrent of rebellious angst. Not a single moment rings false in these scenes, where I often caught myself breathlessly awaiting what comes next.
This is a world that directs our gaze inwards, its walls brimming with the unsaid history of the conservative dominance only preserved for women. In school, when Mira complains about some boys clicking inappropriate pictures of girls, the teacher’s immediate response is to warn the girls and not make it a bigger mess. The girls should maintain their standards- pull up their socks and wear skirts that cover their knees. Aided with Jih-E Peng’s sensitive camerawork, Talati is sharply observant in mining how the invisible structures of patriarchy take shape from an institutional point of view, as the narrative pieces together its threads towards a rewarding (if slightly extended) climax.
Panigrahi gives a wonderfully nuanced performances as Mira, tracing the full fulcrum of her experiences with confidence and poise. She nails the body language of a girl whose curiosity and observation are the film’s silent weapon. As Anila, the always dependable Kani Kusruti is terrific as the woman behind the mask of a watchful parent, walking a complex tightrope of emotions in her interactions with her daughter. An early scene, where both mother and daughter share a dance together, is unforgettable. Girls will be girls, but at the end of the day, no wonder they will know how men will also be men.
Santanu Das is covering the Sundance Film Festival 2024 as part of the accredited press.