The coronavirus pandemic has solidified Netflix’s status as America’s top source of at-home entertainment thanks to buzzy hits like Tiger Kingand The Kissing Booth franchise. But the streaming giant is currently experiencing serious online backlash for providing a platform for the controversial French film, Cuties, about an 11-year-old Senegalese girl living in Paris who joins an all-girl dance group. Last month, Netflix apologized after a poster promoting the movie was accused of sexualizing its young cast. Since Cuties premiered on Wednesday, a #CancelNetflix campaign has been trending on Twitter, with some equating the coming of age film to pedophilia.
The debut feature of French writer/director Maïmouna Doucouré — who was born in Paris to Senegalese immigrants — Cuties debuted to great acclaim at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, where it won the Directing Jury Award. “Cuties is the story of an 11-year-old girl who is trying to find herself,” the filmmaker remarked in a video interview featured on the Netflix Film Club YouTube page. “She’s navigating between two models of femininity: one represents her mother’s traditional origins. And the other is a group of young girls called Cuties.”
Doucouré goes onto explain that she was inspired to write the film after seeing an 11-year-old dance troupe that modeled their routines after more adult music videos. “I was surprised because of their age,” she notes, adding she met with hundreds of pre-teen girls about growing up in the social media age. “Our girls see that the more a woman is overly sexualized on social media, the more she is successful. And the children just imitate what they see, trying to achieve the same result without understanding the meaning. And yeah, it’s dangerous.”
Speaking of dangerous, Doucouré recently told Deadline that she had received death threats after the Netflix poster debacle, and received a personal apology from Ted Sarandos. “I received numerous attacks on my character from people who had not seen the film, who thought I was actually making a film that was apologetic about hyper-sexualization of children.”
According to its maker, Cuties was first and foremost intended to help young girls — and their parents — navigate the difficult transition from into adulthood. And film critics have largely been moved by her vision. “Cuties is not a blunt screed or a finger-wagging cautionary tale in either direction,” writes Vulture’s Bilge Ebiri in his rave review, which also pushes back against the idea that Doucouré is sexualizing the cast. “The Cuties are terrific dancers, but their act is ridiculous given their age,” he writes. “And they don’t actually know anything about the ways of adults — their childish banter reveals they have no idea how sex works, and a scene where one of them finds a used condom, blows it up, and pretends it’s a breast implant results in chaotic, cringeworthy hijinks.”
But the #CancelNetflix crowd hasn’t been won over by the positive reviews. On Rotten Tomatoes, outraged commentators have dragged the film’s Audience Score down to 5 percent, while the critical consensus sits at 90 percent.
Despite the online campaign, Netflix hasn’t announced any plans to remove Cuties from its library. And Doucouré hopes that something positive comes out of the film’s troubled U.S. release. “I actually hope that those who haven’t seen it, will see it, and I can’t wait to see their reaction,” she told Deadline. “Hopefully they will understand that we’re actually on the same side of this battle. If we join forces, we could make a big change in this world that hyper-sexualizes children.”