Girls gone wilder

Brian D. Johnson on the onscreen chemistry between incendiary young women in film

by Brian D. Johnson

Girls gone wilder

VVS Films

Soon enough the boys of summer will invade the multiplex. In blockbusters like Man of Steel and Iron Man 3, superheroes will clash with arch-villains in heavy metal duels while the fate of the planet, and the box office, hangs in the balance. But before the onslaught, look out for the girls of spring—led by the bikini outlaws of Spring Breakers, who seize the amoral high ground from the boys in a poolside delirium of sex, drugs and guns. It’s just one of five new movies about intrepid, uncontainable young women opening in Canadian theatres in the next two weeks—along with The Host, Ginger & Rosa, The Sapphires and Beyond the Hills. Running the gamut of genres, from sci-fi romance to high tragedy, these are radically different films, but they’re all, on some level, tales of girls gone wild. And each is fuelled by the volatile chemistry of female friendship as it undergoes a cataclysmic trial by fire.

At a time when Lena Dunham’s HBO series Girls has lit up the zeitgeist—exploding stereotypes with its raw portrayal of twentysomething girlfriends scrambling to have a life—we’re witnessing a rare convergence of movies about gloriously messy female relationships. “It’s about time,” says Sally Potter, the British writer-director of Ginger & Rosa. “There’s been a tendency for them to be portrayed in films as either sweet and lovely—the sentimental sisterhood—or mean and nasty vixens at each others’ throats.”

By far the most incendiary attempt to subvert the girl-movie formula is Spring Breakers. Already a hit in the U.S., this R-rated rampage follows four bored college girls who bankroll a Florida bacchanal by robbing a fast-food joint—waving guns and wearing pink balaclavas reminiscent of the Russian punk band Pussy Riot. With candy-coloured vistas of massive bongs, slo-mo boobs and fountaining beer, the movie plays like a cross between Natural Born Killers and a Britney Spears video—call it Apocalypstick Now! With a cocktail of titillation and nihilist satire, director Harmony Korine (Trash Humpers) cannonballs from the art-house fringe into the shallow end of the mainstream, corrupting two wholesome Disney kids, Selena Gomez and Vanessa Hudgens, while he’s at it.

Spring Breakers is about girls competing to have too much fun. As peer pressure escalates, the stakes are raised from popsicle-fellating contests to an oral stunt with the barrel of a loaded gun. But for all their sexy bravado, these girls are a fractious sisterhood, trapped in an end game of beach-blanket Survivor. Not to be mistaken for feminist poster girls, they’re like bad Barbies on drugs. They spend most of the movie in bikinis, as playthings of a drug lord who bails them out of jail (and as this gangsta rapper manqué, a snaky James Franco upstages his harem of co-stars at every turn). Even as the film congeals into a feminista revenge fantasy, there’s no romance in this joyride to oblivion.

In other words, we’ve come a long way from Thelma & Louise. It’s been 22 years since that landmark film, and you’d think it might have launched a trend by now. But the promise of the female outlaw road movie remains unfulfilled. As Potter observes: “They jumped off the cliff and that was it. Bye.” Potter revisited Thelma & Louise while making Ginger & Rosa, which echoes its title; she says it was hard to find precedents for dramas of young female friendships. Most are stories of schoolgirl cliques and crushes—from Mean Girls to Lost and Delirious.

Set in 1962, Ginger & Rosa is about a pair of inseparable London teens who, auspiciously, were both born on the day the atomic bomb fell on Hiroshima. Ginger (Elle Fanning) and Rosa (Alice Englert) are soulmates who teach each other how to kiss boys and smoke cigarettes, and who share baths to shrink their jeans.

But their desire takes different forms. Ginger is a rebel poet with an angst that Potter compares to “what gypsies call dor, a state of longing necessary to sing.” Rosa just has a craven need for romance. While Ginger is drawn to Ban the Bomb protests, Rosa is drawn to Ginger’s free-loving father (Alessandro Nivola), a leftie who lost his moral compass on the way to the revolution. And as the Cuban Missile Crisis approaches, Ginger’s doomsday fears find a shattering resonance on the home front.

In buddy movies, says Potter, “it’s all about being cool, whereas young women are passionately ardent in their attachments. Female friendships happen in small spaces, a bus shelter or a bathroom, but their dimensions are without limits. Girls share all their secrets and hopes and fears.” What makes Ginger & Rosa unusual, she says, “is that they’re dealing with issues of sexuality and how to shrink their jeans, but they’re also trying to save the world and figure out if there’s a god.”

While Potter’s film is infinitely more intelligent and mature than Spring Breakers, what they share is a Svengali figure, an older man who serves as a toxic catalyst. A Svengali also plays a key role in The Sapphires, based on a true story about a singing quartet of Aborigine Australian sisters. But he’s a gentle impresario, an Irish drunk (Chris O’Dowd) who weans the girls off country music and turns them into a red-hot soul act to entertain U.S. troops in Vietnam. With him as both saviour and corrupter, the four unleash their urges onstage and off, as war rages around them.

Nothing complicates coming-of-age like the spectre of war. In Ginger & Rosa, Potter threads a narrative fuse from the trauma of a nuclear family to the terror of the nuclear bomb. And these days, she says, kids fret about the future of the planet: “Every generation faces its own apocalypse.”

But no one has conflated the sexual torment of female adolesence with the fear of cosmic annihilation quite like Stephenie Meyer, whose books have spawned the Twilight franchise. The Host, a post-apocalyptic romance based on Meyer’s 2008 novel, puts a whole new spin on fraught sisterhood: it has two rival teenage girls vying for supremacy within one body. The premise? An alien species has colonized Earth, possessing human bodies with their own souls. (The counterfeit humans aren’t hard to spot—their eyes glow like those of the vampires in Twilight.) These aliens are benign body snatchers, utopians who have eliminated war and cured the environment. But there’s a fine line between utopia and dystopia. The colonizers may have banned the bomb and global warming, but the human race is hanging by a thread.

Our heroine is Melanie (Saoirse Ronan), a fierce teenager who belongs to an underground resistance of humans holed up in a biosphere of desert caverns. She has been taken over by an alien soul, yet remains stubbornly embedded in her own body, fighting for control with the occupier. It’s All of Me meets Gattaca. The Host was in fact written and directed by Andrew Niccol, the dystopia specialist behind Gattaca and The Truman Show. But its loopy paradigm of romantic rivalry is pure Stephenie Meyer. Within one girl’s body, Melanie and her alien tenant are madly in love with two different young hunks. Shades of Twilight: once again a teen heroine negotiates an interspecies love triangle—or quadrangle. But after a tussle for supremacy, the rival girl souls begin to co-operate and conspire. And even in this dire post-apocalyptic scenario, Melanie and her alien invader find a mutual divinity in Meyer’s shiny vision of utopian romance, which has colonized girlhood fantasies the world over.

By contrast, for a truly infernal view of adolescent female passion, it’s hard to beat Beyond the Hills. Based on a true story and directed by Cristian Mungiu (4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days), it’s a harrowing tale of two Romanian girls who grow up in an orphanage, become fleeting lovers, then go separate ways after one girl enters a convent. Later her friend comes to coax her away, but finds herself in a love triangle with God. The nun, like a latter-day Joan of Arc, is possessed by visions, prompting the Orthodox priests to initiate a brutal exorcism that feels no less extreme than an alien abduction. Mungiu’s epic overwhelms us with the spectre of medieval ignorance in a modern world, but also with the ferocious power of the female spirit that it’s struggling to repress.

For Hollywood, which thrives on comic book heroes and fanboy ambition, girlhood is still an undiscovered country, as remote as Romania. The volcanic passion of young women in Beyond the Hills and Ginger & Rosa makes you wonder where it’s been all these years. “The sleeping giant awakes,” says Potter dryly. “It’s like people are suddenly seeing the power, the interior life that has come out of this great cultural silence. The stories haven’t been told, but it’s not as if they’re weren’t there to be told.”

Brian D. Johnson edited clips from Beyond the Hills, Ginger & Rosa, Spring Breakers, The Host and The Sapphires to make this ‘Girls Gone Wilder’ video:




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Girls gone wilder

  1. I like the gils

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