In a voicemail to a crush two years her senior, Mira (Preeti Panigrahi) wonders if her feelings are “puppy love [or] maybe it’s big dog love.” Directed by Shuchi Talati, Girls Will Be Girls has an unfortunate title that makes it sound like a sugary teen comedy. It’s a far more nuanced, interesting portrait of a 16-year-old girl coming to terms with a sexual awakening and her young mother, who never quite had the chance to experience one either.

Mira is “head prefect” of her rural boarding school in the Himalayas. She is essentially a class president expected to model and enforce exemplary behavior, warning fellow classmates about their duty to live up to the expectations of the conservative institution. In an early interaction with her mother Anila (Kani Kusruti), she chides her for being on campus, only to be reminded that alumni are permitted. Anila is far from a strict mother, even if she doesn’t quite approve of Mira’s 21-year-old sister, currently attending college and not on the direct path Mira seems to be taking.

While Mira’s position as a leader and role model starts weighing on her, she begins experiencing attraction upon meeting Sri (Kesav Binoy Kiron), an academically ambitious transfer who heads the school’s astrology club. Bonding over a night of stargazing, the two begin a relationship in secret––piquing the curiosity of Anila, who starts to recognize the behavior.

She agrees to call the school, pretending to be Sri’s aunt to arrange time for supervised visits. What follows is somewhat reminiscent of Amy Kohn’s 2015 documentary A Courtship (about the ritual of Christian courtship) until, when Anila monitors their time together and starts getting to know her daughter, the film hints at something slightly sadder. In one sequence, as Mira’s grades begin to drop, she insists they study in separate rooms. Soon Mira finds Anila in bed with Sri, reading to him before an afternoon nap. Anila, a young mother, lives vicariously through Mira, complicating the wave of emotions that are core to the film.

Their courtship continues as the two STEM students become study partners and start experimenting in other ways, demonstrating Mendel’s Law of Dominance in touch. For other boys at the school, an expression of sexuality is outsourced to a computer lab where they can access pornography. The repression leads to bad behavior, and when Mira attempts to report a group of boys for “upskirting,” she is discouraged by a teacher.

Mira also expresses the tension of her role as a perfect student, losing political ground and moral authority within her institution as the film unfolds in a fairly predictable way––like most rebellious coming-of-age tales seem required to. What makes Talati’s feature debut so powerful is that the internal lives of Mira, Anita, and Sri feel authentic, mostly due to restrained performances. What is new is perhaps the setting and unique cultural pressures, reflective of the exciting world of independent filmmaking in India that, unfortunately, rarely crosses over (absent Bollywood stars) into the U.S. the way bigger-budget studio pictures like Fighter (a Top Gun rip-off from Paramount Global’s Bollywood division) do weekly at American multiplexes.

Subtle, observant, and about as restrained as teens can be when coming to grips with discovering their sexuality, Girls Will Be Girls is a compelling study of a character bound by cultural norms and expectations placed upon her.

Girls Will Be Birls premiered at the 2024 Sundance Film Festival.

Grade: B

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