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The year the girls grew up on screen

04 October 2009

In 2003, Catharine Hardwicke's Thirteen was the film nervous parents, like myself, didn't want their young daughters to see, lest it gave them "ideas". Evan Rachel Wood and Nikki Reed starring as delinquent teenage girls, barely in whispering distance of young adulthood yet already deep into a world of drugs, alcohol, alienation and casual sex. Brutal and brilliant, Thirteen stood alone with its unflinching take on the realities of 21st-century female teenage breakdown. But not, it seems, any more.

Sprawling and eclectic as the coming-of-age genre is (comprising everything from American Graffiti, Dazed and Confused and Superbad to Stand by Me, The Last Picture Show, and My Summer of Love), such films have tended overwhelmingly to be by men about boys, or, more specifically, male directors, about typical boyhood/teenage experiences.

Interesting then to see, coming up, a set of films (Precious, Fish Tank, An Education, She, a Chinese and Kicks), mainly by female directors, all about teenage girls' experiences. Set across the globe (UK, US, China), in the main, these films don't flinch from the idea of "teenage girl as bogeyman", reflecting ever-topical sociological realities from illiteracy, early pregnancy and celebrity obsession into yet darker waters of assault, rape and incest.

Could these films be heralding a new coming of age sub-genre: kind of teen verité, with a feminine touch? If so, the lack of "girly" sweetness is striking. The girl-woman protagonists are not depicted "growing and learning" in any whimsical way. Rather they fight their way through, all bruises and sharp elbows; their teenage emotions churning messily in a way that makes their journeys yet more tragic and compelling.

Also noteworthy about this crop is the quality. Lee Daniels's Sundance hit, Precious, based on the novel Push, by Sapphire, has a note-perfect cast (including Mariah Carey as a dowdy social worker), Gabourey Sidibe is revelatory as the obese, illiterate Harlem schoolgirl, pregnant for the second time by her father, terrorised by her mother. However, what sounds like some three-hanky misery memoir soon reveals itself to be a stark urban classic, a glimpse into a life without safety nets that takes a while to leave you.

Similarly, with Andrea Arnold's Fish Tank, award-winning newcomer Kate Jarvis plays Mia, living on an estate with her feckless mother and younger sister and dreaming of escape with her (rather bad) dancing. She remains, hopelessly jigging about, in one's psyche long after the film is over. Indeed, this seems to be a defining characteristic of these new-style heroines. Young as they are, they emerge as real people, not mere conduits of their experiences, good or bad.

Even better, the hoariest of all coming-of-age cliches, the wonderful sexual awakening, gets undermined. Mia's disturbing interaction with her mum's new boyfriend (Michael Fassbender) is typical, in that while the protagonist may be sexualised, that sexuality isn't sentimentalised. Again in Lindy Heymann's seemingly light-hearted Kicks, two girls (Nichola Burley, Kerrie Hayes) end up in dark places with their obsession with a footballer.

Even Lone Scherfig's An Education, based on Lynn Barber's memoir, set in the early 60s, strives to deliver a different slant on the standard "deflowering" bunkum, emerging as a film about a young girl's relationship with her own intelligence rather than her frolickings with an older male. All a far cry from standard COA fare, where virginities, male and female, tend to be lost in a burst of clouds-parting/violin-strewn romanticism.

Indeed, with these feminine teen verité films, it seems there are fewer cliches, period. No one gets to fall in love happily or innocently. There are no Billy Elliot-style redemption-through-talent moments. No one even gets to lie on their back in a field sucking idly on a strand of corn.

Not that the films are perfect (there are rather too many dodgy, blameworthy mothers knocking about for my taste). However, for all the emphasis on harsh reality, these films are no less evocative and stirring. Certainly after Glitter, I never thought the day would come when a scene involving a make-up-free Mariah Carey would move me almost to the point of tears.

Indeed, while Thirteen might serve as some kind of cinematic mothership for these female-by-female films, maybe they differ in a key way. Far from not wanting your daughters to see them, perhaps we should insist on it: give them "ideas", make them think a bit. After all, here come the girls.

Source: Barbara Ellen, Guardion Online