By Andrea Meyer
Being a teenage girl ain’t easy. Sure, there are innocent pleasures of giggling with the girls over Tiger Beat or some guy’s balls falling out of his shorts at the beach, but overnight breasts, sudden prettiness, sexual curiosity and uninvited attention make adolescent girlhood as confounding as it can be magical. While the John Hughes teen films of the 80s whitewashed sexuality in favor of fairytale kisses over a candlelit birthday cake, there are a lot of movies that dive right into the stickiness.
Watch “Lolita” licking her lolli, much to her stepdaddy’s despair. Poptart Juliette Lewis shamelessly flirting with a psychotic De Niro in “Cape Fear.” “Fat Girl”‘s impossibly beautiful Elena (Roxane Mesquida) doing “everything but” with the guy she snuck in through her bedroom window while her chubbier sister tries not to watch. Jodie Foster and her pack of “Foxes” competing to see who can suck the most faces (or was that me and my high school posse?) Carroll Baker’s child bride “Baby Doll” cozying up to 40-something Eli Wallach. “36 Fillette”‘s voluptuous, 14-year-old Lili prowling Biarritz for a man to take her virginity. Her New Zealand counterpart Janey slipping into her mom’s boyfriend’s bed in “Rain.” Gorgeous Vahina Giocante in “Lila Says” spewing obscenities too lewd to spill from her angelic lips. Aviva in “Palindromes” sleeping with boys and men, trying to get pregnant at 13. Baby-faced Chloë Sevigny in “Kids” learning that she is HIV-positive after having sex for the first time.
Sex is scary, but virginity is so over. Boys are immature and inexperienced, but men are old and hairy and off-limits. Male attention is crucial to fragile adolescent self-esteem, but don’t you wish they’d just leave you alone? Such is the plight of the pretty 13, 14, 15, 16-year-old who’s just sprouted boobs.
The latest film to masterfully portray the treacherous landscape of teenage girlhood is Australian director Cate Shortland’s debut, “Somersault” (winner of 13 Australian Film awards, including Best Film, Actress and Director), a movie about a girl just starting to learn what pretty can get her. Heidi, a sixteen-year-old who could be Nicole Kidman’s little sister, is pretty by anyone’s definition, with bold guilelessness and wonder that make her even more attractive. As played by newcomer Abbie Cornish, an Australian actress who is going to be a superstar, Heidi is delighted when her looks and charm bewitch men and women alike, but stung when she’s dismissed for the same qualities. Testing boundaries, she hits on her mother’s boyfriend and, when her mother catches them kissing, flees to a small ski town where she works at a gas station and sleeps with Joe, a local rich kid (Sam Worthington). Wracked with guilt and convinced her mother doesn’t love her anymore, Heidi believes that all she has to offer is her body. She throws herself at Joe and when they fight, at any other guy who will buy her a drink. But as much as we recoil at her self-destructive acts, we want to take her in our arms and cradle her, because what Heidi is really seeking is her mother’s love, and a stranger’s affection can’t quite cut it.
Heidi has entered the cinematic landscape of loveably precocious and pathetic jail bait confronting the world of sex and trying to make some sense of it, flirting, fighting, kissing and fucking and hoping to make it to the other side, intact, alive and confident.
That said, here are my five all-time favorite underage movie hussies.
1. Linda (Phoebe Cates), “Fast Times at Ridgemont High”: Amy Heckerling’s groundbreaking 1982 cult hit showed in stark detail how humiliating adolescence could be. Jennifer Jason Leigh plays Stacy, a girl who has sex a couple of times with little joy, only to end up pregnant. Even more endearing is Stacy’s best friend Linda, played by then-Seventeen model, now-Mrs. Kevin Kline Cates. Linda brags about her mysterious boyfriend and their mind-blowing sex and in one famous scene shows Stacy how to fellate a carrot. In another, Linda walks in on Stacy’s brother while he’s jerking off to fantasies of her. Her horror suggests that she might not be as sophisticated as she purports, which is the root of her appeal. Linda talks the talk, but she’s really just a sweet girl who dreams about big love and looks hot in a bikini.
2. Connie (Laura Dern), “Smooth Talk”: Laura Dern oozes sexuality (see: “Wild at Heart”), but her big, blue eyes also convey bewilderment and hurt, filling up in a way that suggests the world is harsher than she’d imagined (see: “Blue Velvet”). In this early film, Dern plays a girl who’s all long limbs twisting around themselves as she waits impatiently for life to begin. Connie is at that age where she leaves the house in one outfit and transforms it with loud jewelry, makeup and unzipping once she hooks up with her friends at the mall. She is both scared to death of boys and boy-crazy. But the film is based on the Joyce Carol Oates’ creepy story “Where Are you Going, Where Have You Been?”, so welcome Arnold Friend (Treat Williams), an older guy who sets his sights on Connie. What begins as playful flirtation turns sinister, with Connie fleeing at one point from his lurid words to hide under her parents’ steps and cry, “Mommy!” The whole film can be seen as a metaphor for sexuality as experienced by a restless nymphet, who is no longer a child but not quite a woman yet either.
3. Tracy (Evan Rachel Wood), “Thirteen”: In Catherine Hardwicke’s furiously paced debut, sweet Tracy falls in with Evie (Nikki Reed), a “bad girl” who turns her world into the whirlwind she’s been waiting for all her life. They steal things, pierce their tongues, sneak out to take drugs and fool around with older guys. Drugged up and high on their own wildness, they are out of control. Wood’s performance is so real, it is painful to watch for anyone (like me) who was ever a wild child too cute for her own good and ready to tell childhood to fuck off and take an unrestrained leap toward a life without limits. Wood more or less reprises the role in the upcoming “Down in the Valley” (in theaters May 5), in which she plays Tobe, a character who could be Tracy three years later, a 16-year-old who has tried sex and likes it. She falls for an older cowboy (Ed Norton) and scratches and screams bloody murder when her dad tries to keep them apart.
4. Rizzo (Stockard Channing), “Grease”: Who really cares if Channing was 34 when she played Rydell High’s biggest slut? She was a total sexpot in her skintight dresses and satin Pink Ladies jacket. She had the acting chops to make us love the bitch who slammed sweet Sandy as being “lousy with virginity.” And she had the best voice in the cast, knocking “There are Worse Things I Could Do” her ballad about the woes of being Rydell High’s biggest slut out of the field.
5. Deedee (Christina Ricci), “The Opposite of Sex”: When she appeared in “The Ice Storm” at 17 as a gamine who kept crawling into bed with the neighborhood boys, it was clear that Ricci was born to play a seductress. In Don Roos’ hilariously dark directorial debut, she plays Deedee, a pregnant tramp with platinum blond hair, a potty mouth and no morals, who seduces her gay brother’s boyfriend and says things (in the film’s brilliantly acerbic narration) like: “I don’t have a heart of gold and I don’t grow one later.” She’s both precocious and juvenile, both the film’s bossy, manipulative villain and its funny-as-shit heroine. Deedee Truitt might be the best pubescent tramp ever to grace movie screens.