Bo Burnham’s Eighth Grade and Greta Gerwig’s Lady Bird have recently been praised for dealing seriously with their young female subjects, the filmmakers giving teenage girls’ lives the meticulous treatment that Hollywood usually reserves for, I don’t know, Breaking Bad, or films about dead presidents and accused Communists. We should celebrate, but also look back at what came before. Here we revisit one of the predecessors of Eighth Grade and Lady Bird, and two of their recent under-sung peers, looking at their achievements in truth-telling, authenticity, and respect for their subject matter.
Real Women Have Curves (2002)
Everyone should be grateful for Real Women Have Curves, even if you’ve only just heard of it (if this is the case, you’re welcome.) Not only did it bump up the profile of a young America Ferrera, but it was a template for the kinds of filmmaking we’re seeing now (maybe too close a template: writer Josefina Lopez has dinged Gerwig for Lady Bird borrowing too heavily from the plot of Curves.)
We join Ferrera’s Ana on her way to her last day of high school. The commute from her modest East L.A. home is not especially gritty or dangerous; more than anything, it’s boring. Where the average manic pixie dream girl might spend this montage admiring colorful shopfronts, petting dogs, and being handed flowers at every corner, Ana just gets to walk, ride, and walk some more.
Life in Ana’s multi-generational household revolves around matriarch Carmen (Lupe Ontiveros). Day in and day out, she holds court on a continuum of aloof to cruel, berating her daughters over their weight. Her domain extends to the family dress factory. Here, especially, I’m glad that the team behind Curves wasn’t determined to make us like Ana; instead, they let her be a surly teenager, offending the nice abuelas at their sewing machines.
In Curves, as in the best young adult films, life is allowed to play out at its weird pace, passing through highs and lows with refreshing casual-ness. There’s no rallying song as Ana grinds out her college application essay — she just does it. Arguments spark out of nowhere, and confrontations aren’t staged. Like real, pragmatic mothers and daughters, Ana and Carmen fall back together without making up. Tensions and daily skirmishes are never really resolved, but the heat on them is turned down to “warm” out of necessity, and family life continues.
The principal uphill battle of Curves is identity, and finding it when so many parts of you — family, culture, status and self-image — compete to dictate it to you. Few things are neatly tied off at the end of the film, but there is both beauty and familiarity as we watch Ana lay claim to herself.
Girlhood (or Bande De Filles) (2014)
Director Céline Sciamma took the coming-of-age template to the gritty Paris banlieu to make Girlhood, an intrepid take on a unique but not unrelatable adolescence. We see Karidja Touré as 15-year-old Marieme, guiding her sisters through bedtime prep, giggling and chiding them about puberty (in the way that sisters can but that grandparents — think Sixteen Candles — shouldn’t.) But the laughter halts, and we watch the joy drain from the girls’ faces as their elder brother slams the apartment door on his way in. More alarm bells go off, and later we see Marieme pleading with a guidance counselor, dancing around nonspecific family problems as she seeks leniency for her poor grades — no dice. The instinct of kids in rough situations to hide their problems is complicated but universal. It doesn’t take much experience with abuse to see her delicate calculus: Taking action will either make things worse for her and her sisters, or make no difference at all.
Enter Lady, a swaggeringly cool older girl and leader of her three-person crew. She calls after Marieme, asking her why she looks “cranky,” before inviting her to join them on a train ride to Paris. Marieme’s antenna is up, but she agrees. Only after the crew comes to her aid in a mall, dressing down a shopgirl for racially profiling their new young charge, does Marieme start to relax. Even if she’s not comfortable with their tactics (or the knife that’s pulled later during a showdown on the train platform) the hostility is validating. Their ease — laughing and ribbing other girls for their duck faces — is addicting. We see hope in Marieme as she squirrels away a knife of her own at home — clearly not for cutting filles, but more of an accessory, a badge of belonging (the Heathers scrunchie of French girl gangs.)
Flash forward and she’s a full-fledged member of the crew, uniformed in denim and straight hair, intimidating a student for money. Before we wonder what happened, we see it on her face, which is downright sad as she returns €10 to the crew. Swap out names and stakes, and anyone in the audience could be reliving a moment of peer pressure, doing something they were talked into doing but not talked into being okay with. Lady is kind but unmistakably coercive. By being Marieme’s champion against her brother, they tether confidence to compliance, making her eager to please. The mantra they give her to repeat — “I do what I want” — is so rich with irony, it’s staggering.
Then comes the next gift from Sciamma: the girls’ self-styled music video to “Diamonds” by Rihanna. This is shot to show us how the girls see themselves: Glamorously lit and dressed to the nines, they dance and lip-sync in a hotel room — free, strong, and resplendent.
I can’t understate how insightful Girlhood comes across in moments like this. The rationale behind it all — the intimidation, stolen dresses, and other exploits — becomes clear: It’s all worth it, because it allows them to feel like this. We see them just how they feel in this moment, and on some level, everything that came before, and even some of what follows, makes sense.
Edge of Seventeen (2016)
Edge of Seventeen and its star, Hailee Steinfeld, may not have been feted to the extent that Lady Bird and Saoirse Ronan were, but they managed to escape that film’s shadow. And a good thing, too: From the opening bell, Steinfeld substantiates the hype as Nadine, a cool-beyond-her-years high-schooler clearly on the verge of losing her mind. The loss of Nadine’s father, her natural ally, leaves her on rockier emotional footing for the events of the film, which she narrates less with relish than with the practiced voice of someone who, after a sucky day, is asserting narrator’s rights. Sometimes, as an awkward teen, this is what you take solace in: opportunities to vent, entertain and, for us Type-As, the right to dazzle with how smart and engaging we are.
But the thing is, Nadine genuinely is smart and engaging. Think of her like Say Anything hero Lloyd Dobler — precocious, shifty, and a bit on-edge. Subtract any of his self-assurance, though; for every one step taken forward or message typed out, Nadine takes two back, and mutters aloud about how pathetic she is. One wonders about her self-loathing in relation to her disdain for her golden-boy brother, her distant mother, and people in general. Are they two sides of the same coin? They come off more like a shell game, both insulating Nadine from who she really is, because she may well not know. Trust me — we’ve all been there.
Mean Girls (2004)
Mean Girls is by far the least realistic of the films discussed here, but it couldn’t have held its status all these years and birthed a musical (not to mention thousands of memes) without a kernel of realism. Explosively funny as it is, Mean Girls takes its subject matter seriously, and it shows.
The film plops Cady (Lindsay Lohan), a bright-eyed, nervous former homeschooler, into the dizzying world of North Shore High School. The daughter of scientists fresh off sabbatical in Africa, Cady narrates for us like an anthropologist, describing high school as a “stressful, surreal blur.” Writer Tina Fey and her team knew this would be the umpteenth attempt to chronicle high school life, so they leaned into it, using the 30 Rock formula: exaggerate, but only just. (Add up Cady and Lizzy Caplan’s Janis and you get Liz Lemon.)
Adapted from the book Queen Bees and Wannabes, Mean Girls is inspired by garden-variety “girl-on-girl crime.” The Plastics are meant to be caricatures of teen cruelty, but not unrecognizable ones. Most high-schoolers can vouch for these regimented and confusing social dynamics on some level. Every walk down the hallway is full of landmines. Arbitrary rules exist both in and out of the classroom.
Sure, the utopian ending is bogus, and no popular girl wears that much argyle. But adjust for comic inflation and a circa-2004 preppy wardrobe, and you may finally be able to give Mean Girls its due.