Only two films into her career, writer-director Maïmouna Doucouré has earned a spot on my “I will watch anything this person directs” list. After screening her latest movie, Hawa, I’m willing to bet she will end up on yours too.
Her first feature, Cuties, debuted at Sundance in 2020, winning over audiences and critics. Cuties has all the hallmarks you want to see from a first-time filmmaker. It’s the clear work of a skilled storyteller pouring their heart, soul, and lived experiences into meaningful material.
Doucouré’s follow-up proves that Cuties was no fluke. This unabashedly heartfelt coming-of-age tale tells the type of off-the-wall story that could only come from a confident filmmaker with unbridled creative vision.
Sania Halifa turns in a heart-wrenching performance as Hawa, a Black Parisian teen raised by her gravely ill grandmother, Maminata (Oumou Sangaré). Maminata doesn’t have much time left, and with no relatives to turn to, she spends her final days looking for a family to adopt Hawa.
Maminata raised Hawa not to take crap from anybody, and that defiant spirit comes into play during the adoption process. Hawa understands no one in the world could replace her dear Maminata, so she doesn’t endear herself to her potential guardians. But there is one extraordinary woman who may come close: Michelle Obama. As Hawa sees it, Sasha and Malia are out of the house, and Michelle and Barack’s home has some bedrooms to spare. It sounds like a perfect fit.
As fate would have it, Michelle Obama is in town on a book tour. The ambitious teen makes it her mission to track down her idol to propose an adoption. Hawa’s pursuit leads to a series of misadventures featuring a famous singer (Yseult), an astronaut (Thomas Pesquet), a duped reporter, and plenty of frustrated security guards.
Halifa is brilliant as a rebellious teen seeking to keep her shattered heart from falling to pieces. And Sangaré’s gentle presence imbues the film with an added layer of soul.
I’ve seen a lot of movies at TIFF this year, and Hawa is easily one of the standout characters. Her striking pale afro and coke bottle glasses make an immediate impression. But she really won me over with her never-back-down attitude. The kid is a total badass, and watching her stand up to adults twice her size never gets old.
Once she sets her mind to something, there’s no stopping her, which is what makes Hawa’s story so captivating. It’s like watching an unstoppable force racing towards an immovable object. We know from the start her mission won’t end well. There’s no way the Obamas will adopt a teenage orphan who shows up out of the blue. But the film had me on the edge of my seat, worried that this doomed quest might crush Hawa’s spirit.
Doucouré places her protagonist in extraordinary circumstances, but she grounds the movie in very real, very relatable emotions. Most of us haven’t gone on an Ethan Hunt-level impossible mission to track down a celebrity. But who hasn’t looked for quick and easy solutions to complicated problems?
Hawa’s dream of meeting Michelle Obama distracts her from the painful changes invading her life. I know I’ve turned to movies, video games, and even constructing Lego kits to help me get through hard times. Watching five movies in a day won’t solve my problems, and chasing down the former First Lady won’t solve Hawa’s. But those actions take up precious time that could be spent ruminating over what’s hurting us.
Sometimes, a bit of distraction is enough to keep us from tumbling into deeper despair. The right distraction helps me ride out my anxiety until regaining my composure.
Rather than sitting around stressing, Hawa takes matters into her own hands. Through the process, she picks up valuable life lessons that leave her better equipped to face the challenges of growing up. By the movie’s end, Hawa offers a beautiful reminder that we’re never as lost and alone as we believe.
In one very sweet sequence, the movie reveals how the people who pass through our lives shape who we are. After they’re gone, their love lingers within our souls like a gentle echo, even if we’re too numb to feel it.
This bittersweet coming-of-age story hit me with a range of emotions. I laughed, teared up, and walked away uplifted. I exited the theatre reflecting on my life, feeling a deeper connection to all the friends I’ve loved and lost along the way.