There is a moment in every child’s life when they realize their parents don’t have all the answers. For Amy (Fathia Youssouf), the 11-year-old protagonist of the provocative adolescent drama Cuties, it comes when she eavesdrops on her mother, tearfully explaining to her friend that her husband is taking a second wife. They are a family of Muslim immigrants from Senegal living in Paris, and the effects of the polygamy ripple through the family. No one takes it harder than Amy, who blames both her parents for the transgression, her father for committing it, and her mother for accepting it. Like many a troubled adolescent, the rift drives her to seek a new family with a very different set of values.

Cuties is a complicated film that wasn’t helped by its simplistic marketing. It received heavy backlash last month when the promotional material released by Netflix featured the pre-teen protagonists dressed scantily. Accusations that the streaming giant was sexualizing and exploiting children were thrown from all corners of the internet, a fair criticism of the marketing. And the movie does depict Amy’s sexualization and adultification—but doesn’t endorse it. After losing faith in her parents and their culture, Amy becomes obsessed with a group of girls in her class who are putting together a hip-hop routine for an upcoming dance contest. She watches them from afar as they imitate the half-naked dancers they see in music videos. Then, she practices the moves on her own. Finally, she becomes one of them.

We’re forced to watch them, too. First-time director Maïmouna Doucouré increasingly shoots their rehearsals like a hip-hop video. She zooms in on their prepubescent bodies, forcing the viewer to reckon with disturbing imagery that cinema rarely dares to show. They rehearse in private, so, for most of the film, she doesn’t even give us the security of another character’s reaction to hide behind. It’s a brash approach to a sensitive subject, and viewers will surely find it too uncomfortable to watch.

Despite its provocations, Cuties hinges on a very conventional coming-of-age narrative. Amy exists in a long line of movie adolescents who rebel against their parents and fall in with a dangerous crowd, but it works because it refuses to judge her choices, demonstrating both the allure and the risks of her new life. It’s natural to recoil in horror at Amy’s sensual dance moves, but under Doucouré’s perceptive gaze, her journey traces the thin line between freedom and exploitation. In an early scene, a Muslim woman tells Amy that evil dwells in “the body of an unclothed woman,” so we see why she strays so far. The film refuses to pick a side. 

When forcing the viewer to look at such uncomfortable images is anchored to such a familiar arc, it loses some of its provocative power. Youssouf, a first-time actor, gives a deeply vulnerable and charismatic performance, chronicling the intense highs and lows of adolescence with acuity—and, ultimately, it’s hard to leave Cuties with anything but alarm. Perhaps sensing this, Doucouré tacks on a reassuring ending that lets the character and the viewer off the hook, but it ends up softening the hard realities that she depicts. It’s a minor blight on a film that otherwise refuses easy answers. The movie and its girls deserve a better ending. 

Cuties is streaming on Netflix