A Cinematic Understanding of Adolescent Female Sexuality

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.

Jonathan Eig has taught Screenwriting and Film History at Montgomery College (MD) for the past ten years. In that capacity, he has hosted the popular Montgomery College Film Series at the American Film Institute in Silver Spring, MD. He has been a regular contributor on Huffington Post and his writing about film can be found at http://www.huffingtonpost.com/jon-eig/.

10 thoughts on “A Cinematic Understanding of Adolescent Female Sexuality

  1. Another surprisingly sophisticated film that explores this subject is Nymphomaniac, volume one more so than volume two, but it does a great job depicting the struggle of maturing and the impact that others can have on certain difficult decisions. Few have seen it, but it’s an all around smart movie that makes you think. None of the nudity or sex is supposed to be arousing, it tells a sad story that makes you think.

    • Thanks Nikk. I didn’t like either of the Nymphomaniac movies as much as you probably did, though I did think Stacy Martin was outstanding.

    • Good call, Bill. I liked Cracks. I think of it as an anti-Dead Poet’s. Female vs. male, diving vs. poetry, malevolent vs. benevolent. I think Juno Temple is a quirky actress who can be tough to cast, and this is my favorite of her roles.

      • An actual lyric from Jim Dale’s title song, as we get repeated shots of Susan George’s bare legs as she pedals her bike to school: “Dumb but pretty as a schoolgirl should be.” The infantilizing of George’s Twinky is egregious even by 1970 standards. Of course, it’s a comedy, so Twinky singing an off-key Rule Britannia while in a bubble bath, or her lecherous grandfather inviting Twinky’s teenage schoolmates into his own bathtub can be laughed off.

  2. An interesting theme, Jon, and I haven’t seen any of the featured films.

    Recent events here in the UK have demonised any appreciation of young women or girls, whether in cinema, or any other area. It has become taboo, to the extent that it is something I now tend to avoid. Over the years, I have bought films on DVD, such as ‘Water Lilles’ (2008) and ‘Innocence’ (2004), based on good reviews.

    Recently, I was asked by someone if I owned ‘Picnic At Hanging Rock’, and ‘Walkabout’, because of their sexual representations of young girls. This was a genuine accusation, and has left me uncomfortable with films of this type now. This may be a very British thing, following high profile court cases involving household names, but it has left something uncomfortable hanging in the air, when it comes to films featuring sexual themes in adolescence. Censorship by other means perhaps, but no less real for that.

    Best wishes, Pete.

    • Thanks Pete. The best thing about this list is that four of the six directors (In Bloom was co-directed) are women. And even though women can be just as exploitative as men, they bring an authenticity to these movies. So they don’t play so much as male fantasies as most earlier movies that told these types of stories.

      • It’s good that they are women, but you may not be aware of the tremendous coverage of ‘child molestation’ over here in the UK? For the time being, this is an area best avoided, in every way.
        (But I DO take the point, nonetheless.)
        Regards as always, Pete.

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