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These 'Big Girls' ring true

September 03, 2004|Carina Chocano | Times Staff Writer

When I hear about a movie whose director based the story on firsthand accounts of the scary problems teens face today, I start to worry that the scariest problem teens face today is directors interviewing them for their creepy movies.

Extracting true confessions of sex, alienation and drugs for vavoomy morality plays seems at best voyeuristic and at worst hysterical and alarmist. Movies like Larry Clark's "Kids" and Catherine Hardwicke's "Thirteen" treat adolescence as though it were a purely modern plague. But grown-up directors should know better than to take adolescent accounts of ferment, turmoil and social breakdown completely at face value. Not all of us were writers-actors in our dewy youth, but all of us were drama queens.

Happily, despite having conducted dozens of interviews with teenage girls, Swedish director Maria von Heland avoids coming across as freaked out, prescriptive or voyeuristic in her first feature film, the German-produced "Big Girls Don't Cry." This is a feat in itself, given her guidance counselorish approach to the research. Von Heland set out to learn "what it's like to be 17 today," then compiled her statistical findings into a list of adolescent concerns. This may sound about as fun as your mom rifling through your sock drawer, but "Big Girls Don't Cry" burrows into the mercurial post-pubescent mind and blooms there. The look helps; designer Ulrika Andersson and cinematographer Roman Osin's Berlin is swingy, stylish and unthreatening, as is Niclas Frisk and Andreas Mattsson's cool, poppy score. But most of the credit goes to Anna Maria Muhe and Karoline Herfurth, as best friends Kati and Steffi, respectively, who handle difficult material with a light touch and a sense of proportion.

Steffi shares a stylish, elegant Berlin apartment with her high-powered lawyer mom and her journalist dad, while Kati's place is smaller, dowdier and inhabited by a pair of conservative, religious, constantly bickering parents. (In one of the movie's funniest scenes, Kati and her little sister pray that their parents will get divorced soon.) A pink-eyed harridan who takes offense if Kati salts her salad before tasting it, Kati's mother regards her daughter's clothes, makeup and social schedule as the eighth sign of the apocalypse. Kati leads a double life at home and has a tendency to fool around with boys who don't stick around, but of the two friends, she is the more grounded and resilient one. As Steffi, newcomer Muhe exudes a vitality and sense of self that is wonderful to watch. Steffi has the kind of hip parents she can say anything to, so she doesn't. She also keeps her boyfriend, Carlos (David Winter), a handsome musician, at arm's length. The movie doesn't draw a straight line between any particular family dysfunction and the girls' individual problems, however, which is one of the things that makes "Big Girls Don't Cry" ring refreshingly true. Cooler and more aloof than Kati, Steffi is also far more fragile.

This security vanishes in an instant one night when the girls discover Steffi's dad in flagrante makeout with a work colleague at a trendy club. Revolted, Steffi starts planning an inchoate revenge against the other woman by targeting her daughter, Tessa (Josefine Domes), a dedicated musician who lives with her mother in a depressing complex where skinheads harass old ladies. Steffi persuades Tessa to audition for Carlos' band, hoping she'll make a fool of herself, but the plan backfires when the two hit it off. In a jealous snit, Steffi tells Tessa she has an audition with a music producer she knows to be a shady porn producer who preys on young girls. When a classmate of the girls', who Steffi knows had a meeting with the same producer, disappears, Steffi keeps it to herself. Meanwhile, Kati's feelings for her friend are starting to change.

Despite a plot involving some perennial hot-button teenager issues -- sex, drug use, attempted rape, betrayal -- the movie is more concerned with larger themes such as friendship and loyalty and how both can be tested in difficult times. Ultimately, "Big Girls Don't Cry" is a refreshing reminder that learning how to navigate danger is a big part of being a teenager, and that no kind of upbringing -- or nifty home furnishings -- can or should shield a young adult from life outside her doors.


`Big Girls Don't Cry'

MPAA rating: R for for sexuality, language, drug use and some violence -- all involving teens

Times guidelines: Teen sex, nudity and drug use, some violence

Anna Maria Muhe... Kati

Karoline Herfurth...Steffi

Josefine Domes...Tessa

David Winter...Carlos

Stefan Kurt...Hans

Nina Petri...Ann

Deutsche Columbia Pictures Filmproduktion GmbH presents an Egoli Tossell Film Production. Distributed by Columbia Tristar. Producers Andrea Willson and Judy Tossell. Director of photography Roman Osin. Production design Ulrika Andersson. Casting Nessie Nesslauer. Editor Jessica Congdon. Writer-director Maria von Heland. In German with English subtitles. Running time: 1 hour, 27 minutes

In limited release.

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