Céline Sciamma's story of young black girls growing up - and messing up - in the suburbs of Paris will ring true wherever you're from

Great films don’t just make you feel different, they make you feel differently. Girlhood, the latest film from the young French director Céline Sciamma, tells its coming-of-age story, set in the concrete banlieues of 21st century Paris, with such piercing emotional acuity that I thought I was somehow watching my own teenage struggles and triumphs play out on the screen. The fact I’m not – nor have ever been – French, female or black didn’t seem to come into it.

The girls of Girlhood’s nationality, sex and race are crucial parts of who they are. They’re defined by them, but also constrained by them – and Sciamma’s script and her four superb lead actresses show us a quartet of teens who are revelling in their emerging identities while simultaneously feeling their way around their edges, and wondering what might lie beyond, just out of reach.

Marieme, played by Karidja Touré, is a 16-year-old girl who’s struggling at school. Home is an abusive elder brother, two younger sisters and a mother who cleans offices day and night. Her father isn’t there, and isn’t mentioned.

Early in the film, she’s befriended by a gang of three girls whom we first assume are a little older than her. But when she changes her braids to a weave, and pulls on a denim jacket and black jeans, the foursome are like peas in a pod.

Lady (Assa Sylla), Adiatou (Lindsay Karamoh) and Fily (Mariétou Touré) are their names, and they spend school hours hanging around in shopping centres, sometimes dipping into a clothing shop to steal something or to idly threaten an assistant.

Occasionally, they get into a fight with another group of banlieue girls, and you can almost see the static electricity arcing between them, while adults turn away or hurry past.

Marieme’s shifting role within the group is the source of the film’s dramatic energy. At first she’s just glad to be accepted, and when her new friends invite her on a "night out", where they rent a room at a travel hotel with stolen lunch money, eat pizza, swig brandy and sing along to pop music, she looks enraptured.

The track Sciamma chooses for the scene is Diamonds by Rihanna, and the lyrics could hardly be more perfect. “When you hold me, I’m alive / We’re like diamonds in the sky,” they sing together, in limbo between nursery rhyme and bedroom ballad.

But with every fade to black, Marieme becomes increasingly prepared to push further, and act more dangerously, in her ongoing fight to carve out an identity. When she pockets a knife from her mother’s kitchen, the camera slowly and eerily tracks backwards: her horizons literally broaden as she does it.

In this terrifically subtle but completely involving way, Girlhood carries you along with its characters, neither lionising nor demonising them, but allowing you to watch them live their lives and make their own decisions, be they rash or inspired or a terrifying mixture of the two.

Though its title brings to mind Richard Linklater’s Boyhood, Sciamma’s film has no interest in the passing of time or the making of history. This is a movie that’s set in, and celebrates, the immediate, impulsive here and now.