Divines, the year's best and most brutal girl-power flick, opens with a fake-out. Director Houda Benyamina, who won the Golden Camera prize at Cannes, spies on a Muslim prayer service in the Parisian slums. Her lens slowly reveals the peeper: a teenager in a headscarf half-hidden behind a screen. Is this the new face of France? A devout girl who craves acceptance? Then Benyamina zooms in to reveal the truth. The headscarf is a hoodie and all Dounia (Oulaya Amamra, Benyamina's astonishing younger sister) wants is to steal her best friend Maimouna (Déborah Lukumuena) away from church so they can disguise themselves in chadors and shoplift candy from the supermarket.
Dounia and Maimouna are soul mates and opposites. Dounia is small, wild-haired, and angry. Maimouna is large and calm, a steadying titan who piggybacks Dounia around the mall. Maimouna's father, the imam, worries that this gypsy girl is warping his child. "Paradise lies at the feet of your mother," he scolds. Dounia rolls her eyes. Her mom (Majdouline Idrissi) is a drunk, a third-rate belly dancer who can't hold on to a job, or a man, long enough to get them out of their Roma shantytown, a hovel that's only good for getting wasted and shooting Snapchat videos. Dounia is so poor, she doesn't even live in the welfare high-rise that symbolizes French poverty — she lives in a shack behind it. The high-rise would be a step up.
Dounia inherited her mother's temper, but not her fragility. Forget suffering through her and Maimouna's moronic vocational school that just wants to train teens to to sit up, smile, answer phones, and be content stuck on society's bottom tier. "You don't see many millionaire receptionists," she snarls. Dounia will fight to be rich. She'll even rob small-time drug dealer Samir (Yasin Houicha) to convince his boss Rebecca (Jisca Kalvanda), the terrifying local queenpin, to give her his job. Rebecca stares at this insane kid. Is she for real? Finally, she smiles, shifting the thick scar slicing her cheekbone. "T'as du clitoris," Rebecca nods. "You got clitoris."
Divines — which is now streaming on Netflix — isn't feminist. Dounia and Rebecca's big dream is to open a bar for sex tourists in Thailand, to literally earn cash pimping out other women. But it's thrillingly, fiercely female. It takes the same neighborhood-boy-turns-hoodlum story we've seen for a century and simply flips the script. Dounia wants the same things as every hustler from Jimmy Cagney to Al Pacino: money, power, sex. Only here, the trophy blond is Rebecca's houseboy, a shirtless hunk with six-pack abs. When he opens her apartment door, Dounia and Maimouna stare at him, then at each other. How can they earn that?
It won't be easy. Rebecca trains Dounia how to be a woman in a man's world. She forces her to wear stilettos as a disguise, and shoves a gun in the kid's face until she stops looking scared. "Guys are like dogs," Rebecca barks. "They smell fear, they eat you up." Dounia learns to take a punch. There's a horrible overhead shot of her bloodied and smiling, her red grin dripping onto the ground, that proves she loves cash more than her own safety.
Still, Benyamina keeps reminding us that she and Maimouna are little girls. Even if they landed a hunk, they wouldn't know what to do with him. Like so many movies about bad boys and ballerinas, there's a clumsy romance where Dounia lusts after an aspiring dancer (Kevin Mischel) whom the girls heckle from the catwalk above his stage. ("A total lack of technique," sneers Maimouna. "No soul.") Dounia starts creeping on his practices alone. One day, he caps off a sweaty session by stripping off his pants."I know you're there," he says. She's petrified — actually touching him wasn't the plan. She'd rather make fun of him on the street like a brat.
In one magical scene, Dounia convinces Maimouna to hop into her imaginary Ferrari, make-believe they'll both be too old for in one year. Benyamina lets us play along. They fasten their seat belts, and the ground beneath them starts to move. They're floating in fantasy. As they cruise their dream beach — really, a gray parking lot — Maimouna scoops up a "big-booty" bro and shoves her prize in the backseat. "We slay!" they hoot. They toast invisible champagne and we hear the clink. This is dress-up. But the consequences are real.