The summer camp sex comedy is a cornerstone of 1980s cinema, and at first glance 1980’s Little Darlings looks like a minor example of the genre, without the pop-culture impact of something like the Meatballs franchise. Even the plot sounds like prime material for the parody of Wet Hot American Summer: Two teenage girls make a bet over who can lose her virginity first, and soon every girl in camp is laying money down on which one they think will win. But within this goofy comedy framework, screenwriters Kimi Peck and Dalene Young and director Ronald F. Maxwell craft one of the most sensitive, complex teen movies of an era known for its teen movies, starring a pair of fascinating, flawed characters.
It’s clear from the moment she’s introduced that tough-talking working-class tomboy Angel Bright (Kristy McNichol) is not some boy-crazy pushover. Walking down the street in her denim jacket, getting ready to light up a cigarette, she’s catcalled by a passing guy, and when he gets closer and tries to talk her up, she doesn’t hesitate to kick him square in the nuts. This is not a young woman who is going to take shit from any ’80s-movie horndog. When Angel’s mom drives her to the bus pick-up point for Camp Little Wolf, the parents and kids all stop and stare at their sputtering old rundown car, but Angel takes it in stride.
Her rival is upper-class teen Ferris Whitney (Tatum O’Neal), who arrives at the bus stop in a Rolls Royce, dressed in a white pantsuit that makes her look like she’s headed to a polo field. The stuck-up rich girl versus the street-smart girl from the wrong side of the tracks is another teen-comedy cliché, but in Little Darlings, Angel and Ferris are both outsiders. The real queen bee is the worldly Cinder (Krista Errickson), who claims to be engaged to the dude she’s seen sucking face with before getting on the bus, and considers herself famous because she appeared in a hair-care commercial (as the “before” model). Cinder relentlessly mocks both Angel and Ferris for their status as virgins, and she’s the one who first puts money on the line to place them in competition with each other.
Cinder may be the closest the movie has to a villain, but Little Darlings isn’t about underdogs defeating bullies, or really even about characters competing with each other. Angel and Ferris both harbor their own insecurities, and it’s clear that all the other girls in their cabin do as well. Those other girls latch onto the virginity contest as a way to deflect from their own issues, using Angel and Ferris as proxies for the fantasies and worries they have about sex. The filmmakers never condescend to these girls for their fixation on sex, nor do they treat it as frivolous or inappropriate. Sure, the girls line up with binoculars to get a glimpse of the boys at a nearby camp skinny dipping, but in the same scene they have a straightforward discussion about birth control, making it clear that protection is an essential element of the bet.
That mix of summer-camp hijinks and frank talk about sexuality is what makes Little Darlings so distinctive and rewarding. The mission to obtain protection leads to the hijacking of a camp bus, a trip to a gas station restroom, and the smallest girl in the group almost getting stuck in a window. The girls make off with an entire bathroom vending machine, and later at camp, they bash it open with a crowbar like it’s a piñata, grabbing handfuls of the condoms that spill forth. They’re having fun and goofing off, but there’s a serious, considered purpose behind it.
Despite the encouragement from the other campers (opposing factions walk around wearing “Angel” and “Ferris” T-shirts), Angel and Ferris are ambivalent about their goals, even as each girl sets her sights on a theoretically accessible male target. Ferris picks Gary (Armand Assante), a kind camp counselor who works during the year as a French teacher. He fits with her romantic notions about sex, and she tries flirting with him by referencing Shakespeare and French cinema. Angel goes after the seemingly lunkheaded Randy (Matt Dillon), a camper from across the lake who has big hair and a cool car.
It would probably be a stretch to call Little Darlings a feminist movie, but it’s always framed from the perspective of its female characters, and the men remain inscrutable and aloof. At the same time, these aren’t just lecherous guys looking to get laid. The movie is more lenient about the power imbalance in the relationship between Ferris and Gary than a modern film would be, but he firmly draws the line with her, understanding that she’s still immature and that anything he did would involve taking advantage of her. Randy gets impatient and huffy when Angel stalls over their plan to have sex, but his reaction is as much about his own fear of rejection and judgment as it is about being a typical horny teenage boy.
“Do you care about me a little?” Angel asks Randy right before they sleep together, and that tiny amount of emotional intimacy seems like the most that she feels she can hope for. McNichol was a huge TV star (on the hit ABC drama Family) when she made Little Darlings, and her performance as Angel is equal parts mischievous and heartbreaking. Ferris has her own melancholy moments, especially in the scene when she clumsily attempts to seduce Gary in his cabin, but O’Neal’s performance is a little more reserved, a little less vulnerable. It provides the right kind of contrast for the two characters, who develop a wary friendship but spend most of the movie preoccupied with the looming specter of sexual intercourse. Their eventual moment of solidarity is more satisfying than the outcomes of either of their attempted trysts.
Never released on DVD or Blu-ray, Little Darlings was largely unavailable for decades, thanks in part to a tangle of licensing issues related to the handful of pop songs on its soundtrack. It finally made its way to streaming and online rental just in time for its 40th anniversary a few months ago, and it still feels vital and relevant, a movie about teen girls that respects its characters more than most teen movies released today. McNichol and O’Neal have been out of the spotlight for years, but their performances here are reminders of why they both won major acting awards (McNichol two Emmys for Family, O’Neal an Oscar for Paper Moon) before they were old enough to drive. Little Darlings never got that kind of recognition, and now is the perfect time to make up for that.