Sunday’s New York Times ran an interesting piece that speculated about why Hollywood seems to have so few (and even fewer successful) movies with preadolescent girls (roughly ages nine to 14) at the center. While the book market for this age group is booming, the carryover to film has been far less reliable. While movies like 13 certainly depict the perils (in a way that reminded me mostly of the best art-directed after-school special ever) of the age, this article focuses instead on movies targeting preadolescent girl viewers.
The author, Pamela Paul, speculates as one of the reasons these movies struggle is that “The tween occupies a shifting space between the girl who has carefree adventures and the sexy teenager who angsts. It’s a phase that makes both parents and Hollywood executives uncomfortable.”
I’m sure this is true. My new book, The End of Everything, is from the point of view of a 13-year-old girl and I guess I picked that age because there is hardly a time of more “cuspiness.” It’s a time when the world still seems (at least, in my generation) mysterious. Even when your days are mostly filled with the tedium of school and killing time and searching desperately for moments of unsupervised anything, you are old enough to peer into a world infinitely more exotic, substantial and intoxicating than your own. To get a taste of it. It’s such an eye to the key-hole age. But, of course, you usually don’t know what to do once those doors creak—or fling—open.
One of the films mentioned in the piece as a rare positive example is The Man in the Moon (1991), which I remember getting it pretty right. The main character, Dani (Reese Witherspoon), is 14 and develops a crush on her 17-year-old neighbor. The two begin a flirtation but once the neighbor meets Dani’s more age appropriate sister, everything feels taken from her. There are some dark plot turns, but they are not sordid ones. And they feel very real.
The Man in the Moon is set in the 50s, and, thinking too of 14-year-old Matty Ross in True Grit, I wonder if period films manage this better, or we manage them better. They feel less close to us. Less close to home. And the social mores, more conservative, seem to assure us we won’t be confronted with what we face today. Because we always feel everything is more dangerous now, and young girls—we still invest so much in their purity, their goodness.
When I was nine the “teen sex comedy” Little Darlings came out. I still remember the tagline distinctly: “Don’t Let the Title Fool You.” The stars were Kristy McNichol and Tatum O’Neal, who my favorite child actress as a kid (Bad News Bears, now that’s a preadolescent girl character you can write home about).
With its summer camp-virginity-loss-bet, I was too young to see it, but I remember being so tantalized and so terrified of it at the same time. I think I was fairly fascinated by it and when I eventually did see it, years later, I was surprised. For all its trying-too-hard raunch, at heart it’s a movie eager to, intermittently, show something real—about the thorny relationships girls can have with each other (including as complicated by class issues) and most of all about the ways curiosity and competition can push you into some pretty hard corners. Kristy McNichol in particular gives her part so much subtlety, digging into the rawest parts of the story. And the outcome of the “bet” felt utterly, painfully real.
The girls in the movie are 15, and I think most girls like movies/books where the female leads are a couple of years older. And had I seen it as young girl, I think it would have been a complicated gift, but a gift nonetheless.