Thank heaven for little girls! For little girls get bigger every day! Thank heaven for little girls! They grow up in the most delightful way. (Alan Jay Lerner)
It all seemed so innocent back in 1958. Alan Jay Lerner wrote it and Maurice Chevalier sang it and Gigi won the Best Picture Oscar. But America’s awkward embrace of growing little girls has never been comfortable. A series of tough-minded movies about three decades later (Welcome to the Dollhouse, Kids, Thirteen) would scare the hell out of parents by presenting a more sobering perspective on teen behaviour. These movies may have been a bit exaggerated and feverish, but they effectively made their point. Teens were capable of just as much dysfunction as the rest of us, and more often than not, the people in a position to help them – primarily parents – did more harm than good.
In recent years, we have seen a continuation of this late-‘90s trend, with movies that depict brutally realistic growing pains with a bit more nuance than their predecessors. The final frontier in this effort may well be dealing with teenage female sexuality.
Let’s face it, American society has always been flummoxed by female sexuality regardless of age. And adolescent sexual activity is particularly dicey. I’ll leave it to sociologists and psychologists to debate why that may be. In the world of movies, there have been some promising developments. Marielle Heller’s debut Diary of a Teenage Girl is the latest of a series of films which treat teenage girls as sexual beings, just as capable as adults of having recognisable desires and just as capable as adults of making crappy decisions.
Here are five recent movies that present adolescent female sexuality in a sophisticated manner. At times, these movies are very funny. Often, they are heartbreaking. But they always feel real, and as such, feel very refreshing.
Pariah (Dee Rees, 2011)
Alike is an African-American teenager with a gift for writing and a major secret about her sexuality. She is tough but scared, funny but lost, and very smart, though occasionally very stupid. In other words, she’s a fairly typical teen. She struggles to keep her lesbianism from her devout mother and philandering father, while navigating the excitement and heartbreak that any heterosexual teenager would encounter. Adepero Oduye’s dynamic performance as Alike is ably supported by the entire cast, especially Kim Wayans as her brittle mother. Dee Rees’ debut.
It Felt Like Love (Eliza Hittman, 2014)
Hittman accomplishes something remarkable in her first feature. In Lila, she creates a teenage girl with no artifice. She is caught up in the terror and joy and impatient frustration of budding sexuality. She begins as a third wheel, then experiments with more and more aggressive behaviour. Through it all, a detailed portrait of conflicting emotions comes through. As a whole, the movie does not invest the same care in any of its other characters, which keeps it from being as good as it might be. But Gina Piersanti’s Lila is a memorable creation.
In Bloom (Nana Ekvtimishvili & Simon Gross, 2014)
Two 14-year old friends growing up in war-torn Tbilisi in the early ‘90s face poverty, hunger, and casual cruelty at every turn. But the most difficult obstacle is the general dreariness of a seemingly hopeless existence. So they act out in various ways. The more sexually developed Natia is forced into a marriage while the somewhat more aware Eka begins to question everything around her. As in all the movies mentioned here, the lead actresses, Lika Babluani and Mariam Bokeria give stand-out performances.
We Are the Best! (Lukas Moodysson, 2014)
The exclamation in the title is crucial. This is an exuberant drama about three 13-year old Swedish girls who want to form a punk rock band in the early ‘80s. Bobo and Klara are brash iconoclasts with no musical talent but plenty of attitude. They team up with Hedvig, a religious girl who can play guitar. The results are better than the pretty good American film The Runaways (2010) about the creation of a real-life all-girl rock band. When Bobo and Klara, who rebel against anything they can, fight it out over a boy, it feels more honest than any other recent depiction of young teens.
Diary of a Teenage Girl (Marielle Heller, 2015)
Two years ago, I saw Jonathan Slinger play Hamlet in the Royal Shakespeare’s production. Slinger was 40 and balding at the time, not exactly the right age to play the young Dane. Didn’t matter. That’s how good he was. Bel Powley was 22 when she played 15-year old Minnie, who has an affair with her mother’s adult boyfriend. It was San Fran and it was the ‘70s so everyone was a little more laid back. Or stoned. Regardless, Powley gives one of the best performances of the year in Heller’s feature debut (sensing a common theme here?). Teenage Girl is graphic in its sexuality, but even more graphic in its depiction of the turbulent emotions Minnie is feeling as she tries to understand the shifting relationship between love and sex, benevolence and obsession, freedom and responsibility. As in Pariah, her mother (the marvelous Kristen Wiig), a feminist supporter of Patty Hearst who comments snarkily about the fat ankles of Minnie’s white trash friends, has no clue how to deal with the girl/woman she is raising.
The over-sexualisation of teen and pre-teen girls seems to be lambasted and winked at in equal measure. Movies are often just as schizophrenic on the subject as any other business, from advertising to fashion to cheerleading (see the Sparkle Motion team in Donnie Darko.) But at least there are some filmmakers taking a shot at a more sophisticated vision. Hopefully, the trend will continue. Because Alan Jay Lerner was right. Those little girls do in fact get bigger every day.