Off the top, I am not a reviewer of any professional kind. I am just another viewer with an opinion. As I am sure most of you know by now, the controversy regarding the new Netflix drop, Cuties, has created quite the stir. I’ll do my best to keep things simple. Let’s start with the marketing efforts. The disputed cover of the upcoming film was almost immediately contested. Artwork showing young girls in revealing competitive dance attire was rough for some. I admit that I am a believer that we have already crossed the line of exploiting children (see Toddlers and Tiaras, any young beauty competition, and the list goes on). In a visual age, it does seem critical to make some decisions on how we present children on film to the public. Personally, I found this cover to be in poor taste. Obviously Netflix was swayed to agree and the cover was changed to something that I do believe is a better example of the actual intended story behind Cuties.
What I won’t do is spend time going over the summary of the story, who is who, scene break downs, etc. There are plenty of articles (and clips) on what this movie is about and the director even has commentary to view on the Netflix page regarding her thoughts and intentions behind the film. I do believe if you are going to comment at all on Cuties that you sit and watch in it’s entirety, including the director commentary. This movie holds a lot of great discussion points, regardless of whether you like it or not.
I grew up on movies like Taxi Driver, Lolita, Kids, Bully, Thirteen, and so many more artistic movie efforts aimed to show you adolescence through the eyes of young kids pushing boundaries and exploring who they are, while making a ton of costly mistakes. I knew my challenge would be to remain open minded throughout this film in particular due to the age of the actual actors. I tend to lean toward artistic freedom and exploring boundary pushing, testing limits, and taking risks. I do understand that sometimes in order to really drive important messages home, we sometimes need painful imagery and visuals that make us uncomfortable so that we never forget the overall lesson. My goal in viewing Cuties was to determine whether there was any value to this movie at all.
Let me clear up some basics. In the movie, the public and community do not respond well to the outcomes of these kids exploring sexuality and taking action on mimicking what they see. In fact, most of the time you see the community being clearly disgusted and disapproving. This is important to note as it does suggest the film is intended for more than just showcasing kids gyrating on the floor. For about the first half-hour of the film, I had started to believe that maybe the reaction to banning Netflix for defending this film was seriously overreacting. Most of the film carried some real charm about it. The actors were overall really strong and the main character does have a story worth telling and considering. I had already passed the scenes of youthful sex talk, discussions of blow jobs, viewing of YouTube videos, and I still wasn’t offended. Let’s face it. We were all curious children. Some children have more access than others but it’s likely that as you were trying to identify your place in this world, you explored the more taboo to get there. From parent magazines to stumbling across homemade videos and talking sex with your friends, these are real-life moments. In a world of Tik Tok, to believe that your children aren’t in their room right now trying to shake their ass cheeks and perfect a twerk is perhaps naive. They likely are. They are also likely to engage in discussion with friends, some more mature, and in efforts to fit in, your child will try things that are a bit rattling. These moments are critical in child development. They happen. So I understand what the director was trying to showcase with these particular scenes. Again, not offended. However, right as I thought the world might be overreacting again, the film started to unfold the scenes that created mass concern. This visual display continued throughout the rest of the film and if the goal was to make the viewer uncomfortable, it was undeniably successful in its goal. What I needed to go more in-depth on in my brain was the WHY behind many of the scene choices made. What was the value of those choices? Were they necessary? Out of approximately an hour and a half of film, my conclusion was that at least a solid 10 collective minutes could have (and should have) been removed entirely. Maybe that doesn’t seem like a lot of time but that’s not the feeling you get when you are watching. It feels overwhelming. For me, there was no value add with these particular scenes and I was simply unable to answer the WHY. I also could not avoid the most obvious issues with the movie; camera shot selection. HOW you choose to shoot your film is in particular relevance here. This is where Cuties is simply not defendable. I literally lost count at how many open leg crotch shots, butt shots, chest shots, and the super overused finger in mouth shots there were. Literally. Lost. Count. Was this necessary for the overall message? This is definitely where the opinion on value shifted quickly, and dramatically.
I am someone that typically believes that less is more. I don’t need to see the rape scene play out for 15 graphic minutes to know a victim was raped. I also don’t need to see a montage of 11-year-old girls play out what they believe sexy looks like go on and on for what seemed like an eternity. I do understand that the goal was to make the viewer uncomfortable to really drive the battle of innocence and acceptance to the desired goal. Was it necessary? No. This needs to be the discussion.
I had to ask myself the obvious child pornography question. That’s the argument, right? Does this movie cross into child porn? Did it go too far? Is it art? Is it not? Let’s just say that people get arrested for possessing content similar to what we are shown freely in this film in the name of art. Whatever that means to you, it’s true. Even if the majority of viewers “get the intended message” the director is so hungry to get across, the sad truth is that predators, a group we should all be concerned about, is very likely happy this film was made, all messages aside. Shouldn’t that say enough? The tough reality is that there are predators out there. That is perhaps the reality these filmmakers needed to understand differently than they appeared to. The filmmakers are so caught up in their artistic expression that they actually end up creating the opposite reaction in many viewers. Good intentions don’t excuse bad actions. The bottom line is that we carry the responsibility as a community to protect our children. This includes being cautious of how they are represented on film, both for young actors and viewers alike. For me, Cuties did indeed, cross that line, even if it was just 10 collective minutes. There is a lot of damage you can do in 10 minutes. Honestly, the real shame here is that the message is an important one, and with a few omissions, this might have been a pretty decent film. Unfortunately, it just didn’t connect. So I do understand why people defended it and I do understand why people cannot.
So let’s wrap it up with some afterthoughts. At the end of the day, these actors are not older actors portraying young. That is already difficult in its own way. These are real deal 11-year-olds here and that’s another argument entirely. Parents really need to pause and reflect. I asked myself if the real-life actors had been older, would that have helped. I concluded that my personal answer is no. It’s the delivery of concept that is problematic here. The shot choices alone were a complete deal-breaker for me. I also agree that if the intent was to bring light to the reality of children exploring sexuality through mimicking what they see around them, they both achieved and failed. While the movie as a whole concept could have been super strong and worthy of a viewer’s time, the decision to incorporate certain scenes diminished any hope of this being re-watchable for most people. Remove the scenes and you might have something digestible and perhaps even important. I know it also begs the question if Netflix and fellow streaming services hold further accountability with what they offer. It’s worth considering. Without diving into that giant rabbit hole I will simply say that if a streaming service is going to put up movies with questionable content of this nature, it absolutely needs to carry some serious (and very clear) content warnings. We keep slipping off this mark and downplaying content maturity. This needs to stop. Call it what it really is and stop masking it to attract a larger audience. This is of course, yet another discussion to be had for another time but a very important one. Last, spare me with any of your dance mom arguments. I love to dance. I even dance a bit provocatively. This is not what this is….and deep down even you dance moms know it. (if you even took the time to watch the film)