By Saffron Maeve
Given the absurd, moralistic onslaught which obscured Maïmouna Doucouré’s 2020 debut Cuties, one might wonder how a first-time filmmaker bounces back from such controversy, or from a letter addressed to the DOJ by champion of the cinematic cause Ted Cruz. Gracefully, it seems, as Doucouré’s sophomore effort Hawa is a trim, affecting film about a Parisian teen seeking a guardian after her grandmother (Oumou Sangaré) falls terminally ill. With her coke bottle glasses, blonde afro, and a scooter practically fused to her feet, Hawa (a remarkable Sania Halifa) is a joy to observe—save for the bouts of bug spray macing and biting, maybe.
One day, absorbed by a magazine profile of Michelle Obama while cashing out a customer at the depanneur where she works, a strange thought germinates in Hawa’s mind: surely Michelle, living in a 12-bedroom house and missing her two daughters who are away at college, would adopt her. Her guardianship panic lifts (occasionally returning as panic attacks) and Hawa sets out on a bizarre venture to meet the former first lady, who is in Paris for her book tour. Encountering celebrities who shepherd her around the city—French singer-songwriter Yseult is a standout—Hawa inches closer to a cushy, tender lifestyle of memoirs and healthy dinners, all the while half-mourning her beloved grandmother who has yet to pass. Despite a wholly literal and implausible attempt at class ascension with a too-tidy coda, Hawa plucks at the tear ducts with great success, and is a promising second installment in Doucouré’s output.