Few phases in one’s life are filled with more self-discovery than going away to college for the first time. Bidding farewell to the safety and shelter of doting parents, freshman students cling to newly minted friendships, stumbling towards maturity during a few chaotic weeks that are often filled with rampant partying, sexual discoveries, and tsunamis of self-doubt. No film has tackled this initiation into adulthood more imaginatively than Raw, Julia Ducournau’s unforgettable directorial debut.
Described as a “near-perfect movie” by David Fear in Rolling Stone, Raw is one of those rare cinematic gems that grabs a hold of you immediately and lingers in your subconscious for days, even weeks, after viewing. It takes the bubbling libidos of teen-angst films like Twilight and Diary of a Teenage Girl and kicks them in the gut, interjecting them with a bloody dose of Carrie’s self-awakening, and the uncomfortable social commentary of recent hits like Get Out and Split.
Receiving numerous all-star ratings from critics (and certified fresh by Rotten Tomatoes with a score of 87), Raw is destined to become the iconic coming-of-age film of our time. Here’s why.
Nearly every female coming-of-age tale -- from Hanna to Rogue One -- starts with a young person forced by experience to confront her most cherished belief and to question what she has blindly accepted from society, her parents, or her peers. Raw brilliantly flips that trope, pushing its heroine to face a fact that might otherwise feel radical. In this case, a lifelong vegetarian discovers she has an appetite for flesh, in more ways than one.
Anyone who has ever had a restaurant meal with a hyper sensitive non-meat eater will cringe uncomfortably during an early diner scene with college-bound Justine (Garance Marillier) and her nervous parents. Justine’s vegetarianism is reinforced by her mother (Joana Preiss) who throws a fit after a trace of meat is detected in her daughter’s meal -- a strict stance which is forcibly challenged as soon as she is left alone on campus. For her, the radical question is not why do we eat meat, but why doesn’t she?
The director herself admits that self-examination is one of her goals with Raw, saying after a screening in New York, "I want it to make people question themselves. These are questions we should ask ourselves every day. ‘What does it mean to be human? Where is my humanity?’"
Even though Justine's college is for aspiring veterinarians, it seems that no one except our hero cares much for animals -- not even her older sister Alexia, who initially serves as her mentor and guide into this new carnal world. As Francey Russell wrote in Lenny, "Against her classmates, Justine makes a case for vegetarianism by arguing that animals and humans suffer pain in the same way." Her empathy for other mammals is heightened as her own animal instincts and deeply buried appetites take form. Not only does she not want to harm other living things, she wants to help them. Can she do that while being true to herself?
School can be hell
A theme of many coming-of-age dramas is that school is a nightmare, a terrifying rite of passage filled with inscrutable rules and inflexible castes systems. Sci-fi adventures, like Battle Royale and The Hunger Games, make that conflict literal with a fight-to-the-death scenario.
In Raw, Ducournau refines her investigation about humanity by making college a zoo. Newsweek’s Ryan Bort describes Justine's arrival at college as "a Harry Potter-type entering a bizarro Hogwarts." That’s an understatement. Justine’s initiation into a veterinary school reveals how beastly the students really are. From being pushed like cattle through tunnels into an animalistic rave pulsing with carnal energy, Justine encounters a confusing world in which the animals have taken over the animal hospital.
Peter Bradshaw of the Guardian muses that Justine probably thought going away to college "would be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to find herself, to express herself, to find her individuality and personality. Instead, college and adulthood seems more like a fascistic world of submission and staying in line -- or even like some post-apocalyptic society in which these freaky cult rituals have grown up as part of survival."
A new kind of sexual awakening
Perhaps the most powerful theme in Raw is that of a young woman’s sexual awakening. Justine arrives at school a schlumpy, non-assuming virgin and soon discovers the joy and power that comes along with her newly appreciated curves and heightened libido.
Raw lets its leading lady drive. Though at first she is frightened by her bursting pleasure drive, Justine learns to be empowered by her instincts. As Rolling Stone’s David Fear says: "Girl, you'll be a man-eating woman soon." As her hunger (for knowledge, meat, desire) increases, she evolves to understand the limits and limitation of these instincts. Her sister serves both as an example of female bonding and as a cautionary tale.
Other traditional gender stereotypes, from bisexuality to girls standing up while peeing, are also sharply confronted. As Chloe Roddick writes in Sight & Sound, “French writer-director Julia Ducournau’s extraordinary first feature is a heady, blood-soaked examination of femininity, sexual awakening and the sisterly bond.”
Two brilliant debuts
At any angle, Raw is an extraordinary film. But there’s no denying that its brilliance is heightened by the emergence of a fresh new cinematic voice. “It's rare to see such confidence in a first feature,” says Jordon Minzter in The Hollywood Reporter.
Rolling Stone’s David Fear sees the film's star, Garance Marillier, as Ducournau's partner in crime. "Ducournau is the one who gives this cunning exploration of crossing the no-man's-land between girlhood and womanhood its transgressive bite; her young star [Garance Marilier] is the one who gives it a recognizable humanity amidst the amuse-bouche arterial spurt. They both allow the film to get under your skin in more ways than one."
Raw opens wide in theaters nationwide on Friday, March 24. Find tickets near you now.