Bruce LaBruce’s Academy of the Underrated: Little Darlings

LaBruce inducts the 1980 feminist teensploitation movie starring Tatum O'Neal and Kristy McNichol into his alternative canon.

If the 1970s represented the last great era of Hollywood cinema before blockbuster franchises and sequelitis took over, sending it careening into empty capitalist overdrive, the decade ended with a number of masterpieces, both big and small, that essentially drove the last nails into the coffin of an industry that once managed to balance poetry and political substance with commerce. These films often had an ominous, end-of-an-era quality, from anti-Vietnam War films like Cimino’s The Deer Hunter (1978) and Coppola’s Apocalypse Now (1979), two of the most expensive pieces of poetry ever produced, to Over the Edge (1979), Jonathan Kaplan’s teen exploitation flick that might have been titled Teenage Apocalypse Now. Friedkin’s Cruising (1980), with its apocalyptic homosexuality prefiguring the AIDS crisis, also spelled the end of an era of Hollywood sexual permissiveness, to put it mildly, having introduced gay fist-fucking to the masses. Significantly, the careers of all three aforementioned directors, Coppola, Cimino and Friedkin, would not fare well in the more conservative and apolitical Hollywood of the eighties, their films meandering into quasi-irrelevance, or, in the case of Cimino, flaring out, spectacularly and unjustifiably, with Heaven’s Gate in 1980.

The frank and sensational cinematic sex of the mid-to-late seventies sometimes resulted in a representation of teen sexuality that would be unimaginable in today’s Hollywood. Two major films featured controversial depictions of 12-year-old prostitutes: Scorsese’s 1976 Taxi Driver , featuring Jodie Foster as Iris, and Louis Malle’s 1978 Pretty Baby, starring Brooke Shields. The child stars of the era were depicted in all manner of sexual kinkiness, Foster in particular becoming the poster child for precocious puberty and overt carnality. In 1976 alone she starred not only in Taxi Driver , but also Bugsy Malone and The Little Girl Who Lives Down the Lane , the former positing children in very adult, sexual roles, the latter featuring her as a murderous 13-year-old nymphet who uses her sexuality to seduce and destroy a predatory male suitor. Shields would go on to star in The Blue Lagoon , a Hollywood product directed by Randal Kleiser that verged on teen softcore porn, offering up incest as a side-dish. Tatum O’Neal also made her mark as a child star with a grown-up knowledge of sex and smoking in films like Paper Moon (1973) and The Bad News Bears (1976). Inevitably, teens started to be grotesquely punished for their lascivious ways in a new explosion of slasher movies, beginning with Halloween in 1978, and continuing on with Friday the 13th in 1980 and Sleepaway Camp in 1983, the latter shockingly revealing the murderer as a transgender teen.

The summer camp movie became a staple for the working out of adolescent sexuality that may or may not result in evisceration or impalement, depending on genre, making the holiday shenanigans of Hayley Mills in The Parent Trap (1961) look quaint by comparison. While Meatballs (1979) presented a benign and somewhat banal rendition of teen summer camp sexual awakening, Little Darlings , released the following year, depicted it, between the gags, as a blunt psychosexual drama, at times verging on Bergman Goes Summer Camp. In that same year, Jodie Foster negotiated the transition from adolescence to adulthood in Adrian Lyne’s Foxes , another teen movie that dealt honestly and dramatically with teen sexuality, also featuring the great Cherie Currie of the Runaways.

You could easily imagine Foster paired up with O’Neal in Little Darlings , but instead the film recruited the third great child actor of the era, Kristy McNichol, hot off her Emmy-winning performance on the wonderful TV series Family , to face off against O’Neal. All three female child stars started off playing authentic and adamant tomboys, their early sex-identification already unregulated and subversive. Subsequently, Hollywood never really figured out what to do with McNichol and O’Neal after Little Darlings , both transitioning to adult roles in largely substandard fare. Only Foster managed to find post-child star success in her breakout, back-to-back roles in The Accused and The Silence of the Lambs , playing characters with ambiguous or transgressive sexual identities victimized by male sex offenders. Considering how problematic the cinematic depiction of their sexual personae tended to be, it’s interesting that McNichol and Foster came out as lesbians much later in their careers, and after her divorce in 2016, O’Neal revealed that she was exclusively dating women.

Right out of the gate, Little Darlings establishes Kristy McNichol, ironically named Angel Bright, dressed in tout denim and smoking a cigarette, as the tomboy who, as she puts it, thinks boys are a pain the ass. In a short preamble, she discourages a boorish boy putting the moves on her by kicking him squarely, and with some force, in the privates. (In Family , as the tomboy Buddy, she once frightened off a pervy predator by brandishing her skateboard at him.) The film economically introduces the neat class division of the characters, Angel from the wrong side of the tracks (her single mother, who smokes and drives a convertible, is signified as a slut), and Ferris Whitney (O’Neal) clearly from the upper classes, her father’s Rolls Royce cutting off the summer camp school bus so that she can make her late entrance. On the bus, the cast of girls is presented as remarkably sophisticated, with Shakespeare-literate Dana claiming to have seen Last Tango in Paris 10 times, and asking the others if they’ve ever watched Cocteau’s Beauty and the Beast. She also, however, has an appreciation for more basic forms of entertainment, saying of Andy Gibb, “God, I love his ass.” Cinder, the sexually mature sophisticate who is engaged to be married and has already appeared in several TV commercials, claims to have, sexually speaking, hit a home run at 14. It is she who sparks the conflict between Ferris and Angel, instigating a contest over the summer to see which of them can lose her virginity first. (She goads them into it by surmising that they’re “probably lezzies.”) “What do I have to do?” asks Ferris, of the cherry-busting contest. “Just let nature take its course,” replies the worldly Cinder.

As teen exploitation fare of sorts, Little Darlings may not be as prestigious a film as the more arthouse, albeit still fabulous, Foxes , but it does have its cinematic moments. The arrival of the girls at the camp accompanied by Rickie Lee Jones’ “On Saturday Afternoon in 1963,” her haunting ballad about growing up, foreshadows a more poignant and sensitive approach to the potentially sexploitative material. But before that, we’re treated to some standard but very pleasurable summer camp conventions, like a sports montage set to Supertramp’s “School,” and one of the most raucous and enjoyable food fights ever captured on film.

By the time the girls hijack a school bus, driven by Angel, to appropriate condoms from some abandoned, locked-up public washroom, accompanied by Blondie’s “One Way or Another,” you may feel like you’re in teensploitation heaven. Chubby Penelope, the youngest girl, is recruited to squeeze through a window to unlock the door, but unable to get the condoms from the dispenser, the girls make off with the entire thing, later smashing it open in a fit of feral sexual anarchy. Meanwhile, the aptly named Randy, played by a very young Matt Dillon in the followup to his explosive big screen debut in Over the Edge , arrives drunk in a sheer black tank top and tight jeans, driving a red Mustang with a blond in it, whom, he says, “comes with the car.”

What sets Little Darlings apart from other, more run-of-the-mill teensploitation movies is the way it sets up the girls as the aggressive instigators of sex, and has them consistently objectifying the males and watching them from their own voyeuristic perspective. Angel immediately gives Randy the once over, the camera tilting up from his feet to his head in a POV that is usually reserved in movies for men ogling women. In subsequent scenes, the girls spy on their male sexual prey with unrestrained lust. While Cinder and Sunshine (a very young Cynthia Nixon, playing a hippy child) use binoculars to watch Ferris trying to seduce her target, the older camp counselor, Mr. Callaghan (a disturbingly hairy Armand Assante), Angel uses her binoculars to get an eyeful of Randy riding a dirt bike. Soon after, like a mini-Melanie Daniels, Angel paddles her canoe across the lake to pursue her target, Randy, inviting him to a private tryst in a boathouse, his male teenage companions reduced to shirtless eye candy. In the context of teen romance, it’s a radical departure, and not without its feminist import. Shirtless and clueless, with his feathered hair and cut-off jeans, Randy is the perfect boy-toy, arguably prettier than any of the girls. (Considering McNichol’s tomboy persona and the film’s lesbian undertones, it’s worth noting that Angel and Randy, having the same haircut and body type, look almost like butch/femme replicas of one another.) Angel tries to get him drunk with beer in order to have him relieve her of her virginity, another reversal of the usual gender paradigm, but he passes out instead.

The remainder of the film bounces back and forth between Ferris and Angel trying to seduce their respective victims. Ferris visits the masculine but sensitive Mr. Callaghan, who is listening to Vivaldi and typing a manuscript in his cabin. She plays her role like a Brontë sister, dramatically claiming she only has six more weeks to live, then puckering up and closing her eyes. Wary of jailbait, Mr. Callaghan rebuffs her, saying that if she were 21, he thinks he would fall madly in love with her. Over the moon, she returns to the other girls, who surmise from her dreamy countenance that she has done the dirty deed. The corresponding scene with Angel is quite remarkable, again reversing expectations of gender roles not only in teen movies, but also in Hollywood cinema in general. Angel convinces Randy to strip down to his underwear, then orders him about as he passively obeys while she struggles with her own ambivalence about losing her virginity (particularly, the subtext dictates, to a boy). Angel, it seems, has fallen in love with her quarry in spite of herself, and a tender make-out session, which she instigates, ensues. After a brief scene of Ferris lying to the girls about her deflowering, a helicopter shot takes us back to Angel, who has just lost her innocence in the boathouse. McNichol, so consistently heartbreaking as Buddy on Family , displays the same acting chops here as she struggles with her new reality. “It wasn’t what I thought it would be,” she confesses. “It was so personal. Like you could see right through me.” Randy, who didn’t realize she was a virgin, is sympathetic, but it’s Angel who has the kind of post-coital alienation and emptiness more often associated with males. “God, I feel so lonesome,” she says plaintively.

Little Darlings winds up with satisfying predictability. Ferris visits Mr. Callaghan (“Well, if it isn’t Mata Hari”) to confess that she lied to everyone about them having sex, getting him into hot water. Then, finally, the scene we’ve all been waiting for, in which Ferris and Angel, sitting on tire swings, confess their sins to one another in true female melodrama style. “My whole affair was a lie,” says Ferris, while Angel, who has led everyone to believe she didn’t lose her virginity, confesses that she did, and cries, then smokes. The two girls become besties, and all the girls confess they’re virgins too, except Cinder, who cooked up the whole contest in the first place. She’s punished when, improbably, Sunshine socks her in the jaw. As they leave the camp, Mr. Callaghan thanks Ferris for telling the truth and keeping him out of jail. “You know, you’re quite a woman, Miss Whitney,” he tells her. “Wait till I’m 21, Mr. Callaghan.” Angel introduces her new best friend Ferris to her slutty mother, class boundaries are shattered, and as “Let Your Love Flow” by the Bellamy Brothers plays over the closing credits, the lesbian subtext lingers like a summer breeze.

Bruce LaBruce is a filmmaker, writer, photographer and artist based in Toronto, Canada. Recently there have been retrospectives of his films at the TIFF Bell Lightbox in Toronto and at MoMA in New York City. He is currently working on his latest feature length film, The Misandrists, which will be released in 2017.