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Hollywood's New Look for Young Women

August 18, 1996|Kathleen Craughwell | Kathleen Craughwell is a member of The Times' film staff

The coming-of-age film has been a decidedly masculine genre--until recently, that is. A new batch of mostly independent films depicts the lives of teen and preteen girls, and often in a more stark light than movie audiences are used to seeing.

"Girls Town," which opens Aug. 30 and took two awards at this year's Sundance Film Festival, is a cinema verite-style look at the lives of three high school seniors who deal with the tumult and revelations that result from a close friend's suicide.

"Foxfire," in theaters Friday, is an adaptation of a Joyce Carol Oates novel, but set in present-day Portland, Ore., about how a rebellious drifter (Angelina Jolie) changes the lives of four other high school girls.

Two other Sundance winners, "Welcome to the Dollhouse" and "Manny & Lo," still in theaters, are about the harsh realities of slightly younger girls.

The single studio film released this summer that fits this category is Bernardo Bertolucci's "Stealing Beauty." Although the film opened to lukewarm reviews, its young star, Liv Tyler, has been praised for her guileless performance as 19-year-old Lucy, an American whose search for self takes her to Tuscany.

But is the collective American movie audience, which is used to seeing younger women portrayed either as sex objects or in polite films such as "Little Women" or any number of Jane Austen film adaptations, ready to embrace films that depict teen and preteen girls dealing with abandonment, rejection, rape, unwanted pregnancies and sexual harassment?

"Girls Town" writer-director Jim McKay thinks so. "Women and girls' . . . stories are not valued as much. I think we're constantly underestimating, seriously underestimating, the teenage girl audience in particular."

In discussing his film with two of its stars, Lili Taylor and Anna Grace (who also co-wrote "Girls Town"), McKay expresses the importance of portraying this vulnerable period in teenagers' lives.

"High school kids have less of a sense of rules and what is proper," he says. "There is more freedom to break the rules. I think they act just more out of instinct."

Taylor, who plays a 20-year-old single mother in her sixth year of high school, agrees that there is something special about the years right before the threshold of adulthood is reached. "There's just so many things going on [with teenage girls]. They're aware but they're not aware, they're uncomfortable but they're fiery, awkward. So much."

In "Foxfire" four disparate female students of a lecherous biology teacher band together to teach him a lesson and then must remain united in facing the punishment handed down by school administrators.

Director Annette Haywood-Carter quotes her own teenage daughter as saying: "My life isn't PG-13, so why would I go to a PG-13 movie?"

In the R-rated "Girls Town," the characters also deal with sexual assault in unconventional ways. Victims of unreported date rapes begin an anonymous list of offenders on the high school restroom wall, a practice McKay says occurs at a number of colleges.

But for all the critical acclaim and festival awards, what remains to be seen is if audiences will respond at the box office, particularly the audience these films are about.

"High school kids in general, and you're talking about a really big ticket-buying audience, are not as used to seeing an independent film," McKay says. "They respond to films like 'Dangerous Minds' because it's big and in your face and brightly lit with big camera moves. Even though the scenes they see may not be realistic in their minds, they still respond to it aesthetically. Oftentimes the funkier, more independent film has a harder time getting to them. Or getting them to it. Once they connect I think they'll like each other."

"We're hoping to spread to . . . more urban places where young people are. I'd like to find some more creative places to go where kids can get to it, plus also a more nonwhite audience."

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