A still from the controversial French documentary “Cuties.”

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In the new Netflix documentary “The Social Dilemma,” former Google design ethicist Tristan Harris warns that social media has become an “existential threat” to society.

He sees it generating “mass chaos, outrage, incivility, lack of trust in each other, loneliness, alienation, polarization, … distraction, and an inability to focus on the real issues.”

Not for nothing did Bob Woodward call his new book “Rage.”

I was on the receiving end of some online rage myself recently when I published a positive review of a new French film that has sparked controversy in the U.S. and prompted calls to boycott Netflix.

It was the first time I’ve ever received such an angry reaction to a movie review. Maybe I’ve just been lucky until now?

Maybe some of you have experienced similar outrage in recent times — over whether or not to wear a mask, send your kids to school, vote for a certain candidate, carry a specific protest sign?

Outrage is everywhere these days, yet too often it’s unfounded or misdirected.

The controversy

I believe that’s the case with “Cuties” (“Mignonnes”), the French film at the heart of the recent #CancelNetflix boycott.

Netflix sparked the controversy in August with a poorly planned marketing campaign that showed the film’s tween stars dolled up and posing suggestively with no narrative context.

Accused of “promoting pedophilia,” the streamer apologized for misrepresenting the film. “Cuties is a social commentary against the sexualization of young children,” Netflix later clarified.

But it was too late. By the time the film premiered in the U.S. on Sept. 9, calls for a boycott had spread and the director had received death threats.

In some ways, the controversy has brought more attention to this film than most French movies ever get in this country.

But much of that attention has ignored the award-winning film’s merits — a nuanced narrative, carefully devised characters and serious social commentary.

The context

“Cuties” is about a group of girls in a majority immigrant and low-income area of Paris who are vying to make it into a local dance competition.

Inspired by videos they see online, the girls incorporate increasingly more risqué moves into their routine.

They are imitating what they see older girls and women doing and saying online without understanding much of it. In exchange, they get attention, new friends and even a coveted spot at the competition.

In interviews, the film’s French-Senegalese director, Maïmouna Doucouré, said she was motivated by a similar dance performance she witnessed in Paris to interview more than 100 girls to understand their world, what they’re exposed to and how they define womanhood.

She also said she took measures to protect her young actresses, using composite shots of the dancing, working closely with the girls’ parents and a trained counselor on set, and getting approval for the project from child protection authorities in France.

The characters

Doucouré’s subtext about the conflicting messages young girls receive are embodied in the film’s main character, Amy.

An 11-year-old Senegalese immigrant, Amy’s experience at her new Parisian school contrasts sharply with her conservative Muslim community, where women are taught that “evil” shows itself in their scantily-clad bodies and that they should “obey” their husbands.

Amy discovers her father is about to take a second wife, breaking her mother’s heart, and the family must make sacrifices to host the wedding.

This context is all crucial to understanding why Amy might be drawn to the uninhibited girl group or to question and even rebel against her family’s values.

Amy and her friends are also shown to be lacking in close adult supervision. As New Yorker critic Richard Brody noted, the film suggests girls — particularly the low-income and immigrant girls portrayed here — are more vulnerable to online messages when they lack guidance and open family discussions to counter them.

The message

In a climactic scene in the film, the girls perform their final dance routine in a public park. Doucouré focuses on the outraged and horrified expressions of adults in the audience.

The message is clear: We should be outraged by what young girls today are exposed to and the behaviors they learn through imitation.

Doucouré seems to want to stir us to action, the way Amy is suddenly awakened by the public’s reception to the performance and, in a lovely final scene, returns into the fold of her family and back to a more sheltered childhood.

Could this movie have been made without filming the girls dancing and posturing in the manner that’s elicited such outrage? Should it have?

I agree with what Doucouré wrote last week in the Washington Post: “These scenes can be hard to watch but are no less true as a result.”

In my opinion, calling on Netflix to censor this film, especially without watching it, blames the messenger but ignores the message.

It opts for outrage over dialogue.


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