Little Darlings

(Ronald F. Maxwell, USA, 1980)


Little Darlings is a little film – modest in terms of its production values, style and intentions. It could easily be mistaken for a telemovie. But it is precisely the unassuming nature of this project that makes it such a fascinating and significant work – for the modest films are sometimes the ones that reflect the real cultural and social trends.

First scene: tough-girl Angel (Kirsty McNichol) strolls the streets of her neighbourhood. A local boy propositions her. Angel's response: she kicks him in the crotch. From this prologue right on through the film, Little Darlings sets about subverting male/female sexual stereotypes. The situation (a holiday camp) is familiar, but all the behavioural tables are turned. Here, it is the women – and fifteen-year-old women, what's more – who scheme, take the initiative, prey upon the men. In fact, men are no more than the proverbial sex objects, the commodity required for the girls to lose their virginity.

Little Darlings works out this theme with admirable rigour. It affects not only the element of the film's narrative content (the scene, for instance, where the girls break into a men's toilet and steal a condom vending machine) but also details of its construction. Traditionally, for example, the subjective point-of-view shot in cinema has predominantly been given over to the male characters, with women fixed as the objects of this male gaze. The film exactly reverses this in a scene where Angel looks her chosen victim over from top to bottom while he is turned away, unaware of her appraisal of his physical worth. Similarly, another scene involves a group of girls with binoculars gazing at the boys at an adjacent holiday camp skinny dipping. Such female voyeurism is very rare in popular commercial cinema!

The film marks a significant moment in the cinematic presentation of teenage women. When Shirley Temple was a child-star, it was possible for her to portray a fiercely individual and independent character – she belonged to no one. As soon as she reached her teen years, however, Hollywood could do no more with her. It was necessary for her to lose her individuality and be paired off with a suitable male partner. Tatum O'Neal, who plays Ferris in this film, provides an interesting comparison with Shirley Temple. Like her predecessor, O'Neal has moved from child-star to teenage-star. But Little Darlings does not deprive her of her independence. Indeed, the film provides both Angel and Ferris with a scene where they walk away from the men they have been involved with, so that they can work things out within themselves – and with each other, as friends.

As a film, Little Darlings has a solidly conventional, Old Hollywood-style construction. It has a satisfying logic and systematicity. The film begins by cutting between Ferris and Angel in close-up, each on their way to camp. This pattern announces the differences between them (class, dress, manner) and the mutual hostility that will provide the film with most of its plot. But it also sets up the ultimate resolution of the film's final shot – Ferris and Angel sharing the same frame in close-up, embracing one another, differences dissolved by mutual experiences and sharing.

Similarly the film works, like so many Old Hollywood films, on a principle of binary opposition. Things are set up in extreme contrast, and then played off against one another. Take the whole situation of the holiday camp. It is organised by adults on the basis of order and control, and in the light of its physical and mental benefits for teenagers. For the girls, however, the camp provides an opportunity for a total release of inhibitions, an expenditure of energy that serves no socially or morally useful purpose.

Seen in this way, the slapstick scene of the communal meal which moves from respectable order to utter chaos, with the girls throwing food and pouring drink over one another, revitalises and renews a standard comic situation that elsewhere could have been merely cliché.

Cliché and stereotype are the words that have most been used in the press reviews of the film – used in such a way as to convey an unqualified put-down.

I see the issue quite differently. Little Darlings is indeed a film which is wholly compromised of quotations. Everything in it is borrowed from the assumptions and definitions that pervade our culture – hence character-names like Angel or Randy, labels such as rich or tough. Sexuality, class, mannerisms ... all these elements are pared down and lit up like so many neon signs – just as they are in our society. The important question is – what is Little Darlings doing with such stereotypes?

Apart from the considerable comic mileage that can be milked from playing on stereotypes, something quite serious and progressive can also occur, and it does in this film. What Little Darlings gives us is not just one social definition of femininity or maturity – it gives us a dozen, and hurls them all against each other. One of the film's central preoccupations is where and how to draw the line childhood and adulthood. What makes the difference: the first period? Loss of virginity? Loving and being loved? The film never quite settles on any of these; it just keeps circulating meanings and shifting positions. Everything is relative, tactical not commonsensical or (supposedly) natural. In one scene Ferris asks an older woman whether she is ready for sexual activity. "After all, I'm a modern girl!", Ferris insists. "But I think I'm modern," the other woman protests.

We can now return to our initial observation. If Little Darlings has a certain feminist appeal, this is not because it preaches an idealist message and tells us what women 'really are' (whatever that would be). It is more concerned with laying out all the different definitions of femininity and seeing them simply as a range of moment-to-moment possibilities. The women in the film are constantly discussing and joking about the images they should or might project of themselves. And it is to the film's credit that that it does not present this as juvenile play-acting – the little darlings, like this little film that contains them, point the way to progressive thought and action.

MORE Maxwell: Gods and Generals

© Adrian Martin October 1980

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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