Cara Delevingne and Nat Wolff in Paper Towns.
Right now is a wonderful time to be a fictional woman. A quick glance at the current box office top ten in Australia shows plenty of ticket stubs to watch the animated tween Riley in Inside Out, Carey Mulligan in Far From The Madding Crowd, Melissa McCarthy and Rose Byrne in Spy, and Mia Wasikowska in Madame Bovary.
And just over the horizon another crop of female characters are rushing towards the big screen, but it suddenly seems to be the teenage girl who is stepping into the cinematic spotlight. After all, who wouldn't want to make a film about an adolescent girl? They are drama personified with their whiplash emotions roaring as they stand on the precipice of their future.
The celluloid teen girl holds a special place in the heart of many women who grew up watching the ditzy but kind-hearted antics of Cher Horowitz in Clueless, coveting the fluffy blue sweater worn by Liv Tyler in Empire Records or nodding in recognition at the growing pains of Enid Coleslaw in Ghost World. The teen girl experience has also been well examined by television series like My So-Called Life, Buffy The Vampire Slayer and Daria. The best examples of these depictions admit the breadth of the adolescent experience and don't shy away from authentically exploring the diversity of identities often contained within the one girl.
Three anticipated films featuring teen girls are just around the corner. The absolute pick of the bunch is Marielle Heller's excellent The Diary Of A Teenage Girl (due September 24), recently screened at the the Sydney Film Festival. Based on Phoebe Gloeckner's 2002 graphic novel, the movie is set in 1970s San Francisco where 15-year-old Minnie Goetze (played to perfection by Bel Powley) is shakily trying to come to grips with her burgeoning sexuality.
The wonderful thing about this movie is the complexity of Minnie; she's smart but makes terrible decisions. One of my favourite scenes shows her and a friend making a risky sexual choice and the next day saying words to the effect of "Let's never do that again". She isn't immediately punished like happens in so many movies (the most obvious trope being how the 'slutty' character is usually the first to die in your bog standard horror film). Instead, she chooses to try something, then decides she doesn't want to ever do it again, and that's the end of that. Minnie's narrative is vivid and funny and heartbreaking and messy, perfectly mimicking the genuine experience of getting through those 'not a girl, not yet a woman' years. It seems no coincidence that the most realistic and complicated portrayal was also the one helmed by a female director from source material by a female author.
Another worth watching is the just released Paper Towns, based on John Green's immensely popular 2008 young adult novel. Green has said he wanted the book to blow apart the much-discussed concept of the 'manic pixie dream girl', a stock character first named by critic Nathan Rabin in 2007 as existing "solely in the fevered imaginations of sensitive writer-directors to teach broodingly soulful young men to embrace life and its infinite mysteries and adventures" (Kirsten Dunst's character in Elizabethtown or Natalie Portman's character in Garden State are the classic examples of this archetype).
So Green created Margo (as played by Cara Delevingne) to be seen through the eyes of protagonist Quentin as a bold and quirky girl who seemingly lives life hopping from adventure to adventure, then slowly her hidden layers are revealed. Green stated on his website, "Paper Towns is a book about - at least in part - the MPDG lie, and the danger of the lie - the way it hurts both the observer and the observed." The film adaptation makes explicit the subtext, showing that despite Quentin's belief that Margo has been put into his life for some profound cosmic reason, she's actually far too busy on her own path to be some sort of magical sage to him - a lesson that is valuable to both teenage boys and girls.
Clearly not every movie featuring a young woman is automatically worthy of a torrent of praise, though one in particular seems to be inexplicably receiving it. Me And Earl And The Dying Girl (out September 3) picked up the Grand Jury Prize and the Audience Award at this year's Sundance Film Festival. The buzz for this film has been mammoth with the trailer promising a zingy, unsentimental teen flick, with strong hints of Wes Anderson.
And yet, I found it the most disappointing release I've seen so far this year. Despite the name giving equal footing to all three characters, it's the 'me' of the title, Greg, a boring white guy in his final year of high school, who gets the lion's share of the limelight, despite his being the least interesting character in the entire film by a wide margin. The other two, Earl, his black best friend who Greg neurotically refers to as his 'co-worker', and the 'Dying Girl', Rachel, are all just pawns to help Greg wise up to the blindingly obvious fact that he should stop being such a whiny, closed-off sad sack. Whenever it takes a female character being horrifically ill just so the male main character can learn he should probably hurry up and apply for university, it become a little hard not to roll your eyes skyward at the disposable way in which the non-male, non-white characters are written.
Despite a few missteps, it's good to see the teen girl taking her rightful place on the silver screen, big heart and bad choices intact. The best writers make her multidimensional and give her room to grow, instead of just treating her as a stepping stone on a male character's journey. To paraphrase John Hughes' seminal teen drama The Breakfast Club, it's always worth remembering that inside all of us is a brain and an athlete and a basket case and a princess and a criminal, and nowhere is that more true than during the high school years.