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Kindly indulge me, and apologies to John Hughes here (except in relation to the icky bits of those movies; you know the ones I mean), but I firmly believe that the golden era of teen movies was 1995-2004. It was an age of retellings (Clueless for Austen’s Emma; 10 Things I Hate About You for Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew; Cruel Intentions for Laclos’s Dangerous Liaisons) and of cheerleaders (see the Bring It On franchise or the glorious But I’m A Cheerleader or Sugar and Spice); an age of makeovers (She’s All That) and parodies of same (Not Another Teen Movie); an age of absurdity and an age of dark comedy (see Donnie Darko or Igby Goes Down or Saved! for both).
It was just before YA novels exploded and before it needed to really co-exist with that field, before you had adaptations of big franchises like Twilight and The Hunger Games as well as standalone titles (The Fault In Our Stars; Love, Simon; To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before; The Miseducation of Cameron Post). It was on the cusp of cinema becoming obsessed with big-deal big-explosion movies and less interested in the rom-coms or coming-of-age stories; a time when you could find five or six or seven teen movies each year to fall in love with (and you didn’t need to try that hard to find them).
Nowadays, almost everything is online (legally or illegally), but in an age where pirating is rife, it’s pleasing that the most talked-about teen movie of the moment, the aforementioned To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before, is a Netflix original rather than something sneaked onto USB sticks or BitTorrented (do the kids still do that?) onto a hard drive.
For all that Big Studios and Big Production Companies may be corrupt or problematic or whatever it might be, we’re still likely to rely on them for a baseline level of quality. And we can do this at our leisure.
This wasn’t always the case, which brings me to one of the most delightful teen comedies from twenty years ago you’ve probably never heard of: The Hairy Bird. Or, All I Wanna Do. Or, Strike!
If you’re thinking ‘it’d be much easier if they’d just had one title’, you’re dead right. But original title The Hairy Bird – a not-so-subtle euphemism for, eh, male genitalia – saw American distributors freak out and have it retitled as the basically-meaningless All I Wanna Do (no relation to the Sheryl Crow song of the same name). The UK and Canada got Strike! as a title, leaving Australia as the only country with the original still intact.
The lack of consistency didn’t help this Canadian-American film, written and directed by Sarah Kernochan (whose first screenwriting credit was on 9 ½ Weeks and who has since recorded several albums and written a number of novels in addition to her film work), a still-proving-herself writer/director at the time. All I Wanna Do/Strike/The Hairy Bird also deviated from teen comedy norms at the time, being set in 1963 rather than present-day (Pleasantville, released a few weeks later, similarly was not a box-office success, though has become a cult classic).
And there’s no real romance element. The true love story here is between the girls and their school – Miss Godard’s Preparatory School for Girls, heavily based on Rosemary Hall (later one half of the co-ed Choate Rosemary Hall), which Kernochan attended. The one incredibly-dramatic romance, the will-they-won’t-they plot running throughout, involves ‘townie’ Vincent Kartheiser (well before he starts being an annoying teenager in Angel or a creep in Mad Men!) and schoolgirl Tinka (Monica Keena, best known for her TV work on Dawson’s Creek and Entourage), and is punctured in the epilogue with a reveal that formerly-boy-crazed Tinka is actually a lesbian.
Romance is tricky in the world of this movie because it’s ultimately an investigation into the world of girls’ boarding schools in all their weirdness. The environment is referred to as “unnatural” twice, by both a creepy male teacher and a sympathetic headmistress, at the same time it’s acknowledged (most vocally and vehemently by Verena, a glorious Kirsten Dunst) that the school going co-ed, a threat presented early on in the movie, would be a disaster.
Isn’t it more ‘natural’ to have girls and boys educated together? Tinka argues for that: “Real life is boy-girl, boy-girl!” Verena responds: “No, real life is boy-on-top-of girl!” For Verena and her MIT-bound friend Momo (Merritt Wever, now of Nurse Jackie fame) the idea of boys arriving is a disaster – not only will they encourage girls to spend endless amounts of time on their appearance but they’ll create an atmosphere where girls are reluctant to speak up in the classroom (both because the boys are more likely to be called on and because girls know that boys prefer girls who don’t ‘seem smart’).
The others disagree – Tinka, Teeny (Heather Matarazzo in one of her many wondrous supporting roles), and Odette (Gaby Hoffmann) are prepared for a world with boys. Particularly Odette, who’s been angling to get into bed with her long-distance boyfriend Dennis ever since being exiled to the world of Miss Godard’s.
Despite the school merger still being a secret, it’s clear the more ‘respectable’ girls at Miss Godard’s would embrace the co-ed world – teacher’s pet Abby (‘90s darling Rachael Leigh Cook) and the stuffy Susie (Caterina Scorsone before her Grey’s Anatomy days) are fiercely eager to impress the St Ambrose boys when they arrive for a summer event. Unfortunately, Verena and Momo have been scheming – leaving the boys looking like a loutish, alcoholic bunch of creeps. (It’s manipulative, yes, but also not too much of an exaggeration of the game they have going; to find the girl with the biggest breasts. Classy.)
At the dance, amidst Momo serving the guys ‘special punch’, an early-career Hayden Christensen makes a largely non-verbal appearance as Tinka’s prematurely-excited date; meanwhile Odette is trying to consummate her relationship with Dennis, who proves to be a regular teenage-boy idiot when trying to open the contraceptive foam he’s purchased in lieu of condoms.
Odette, whose main goal has been to get laid, finds herself interrogating Dennis about his political opinions; hanging out with Verena and her friends has had an impact. Meanwhile, Verena (proudly uninterested in the sex, and believing it means she has the brainpower to contemplate other things) finds herself intrigued by the boy she’s supposed to manipulate.
Also, there’s the worries about the school, which is underfunded and in danger of closing unless it merges with the boys’ school, despite how rowdy its students seem.
And we remember that this is basically an interrogation of why girls’ schools matter. Miss McVane, the headmistress (a perfect Lynn Redgrave), states: “Eve Godard founded this school because she believed that girls have a better chance to grow strong away from the irresistible domination of men. She used to say, ‘We build them up so you can’t tear them down.’ They come first here. If we merge with a boy’s academy, the girls will be second. They shouldn’t have to learn such a bitter lesson at this crucial age.”
But as Verena and her friends have already sussed, women don’t think too much about the schools they’ve attended because most of them will end up as wives-to-the-privileged rather than women with careers of their own. “The men give generously to their schools,” Miss McVane sighs. “It’s a solid investment. They are insuring that a steady supply of the nation’s leaders will be men. Maybe you women don’t give because deep down you know it’s useless. We might as well have been teaching needlepoint and gardening instead of physics and government.”
And then she starts throwing things.
And why not?
The student rebellion that ensues is knowingly anachronistic, foreshadowing the later sixties, but it’s a joy to watch. Odette steps up to a leadership role, and the brown-nosing Abby becomes a rebel. Here are teenage girls demanding their say, because, as Odette puts it, “Miss Godard’s gave us a voice, so now it’s kinda hard to shut up.”
They win the day by being “organised” because it’s a trait of “Miss Godard’s girls”, even as they are rebellious and revolutionary. At no stage are they called upon to be less . . . feminine, less girlish.
It’s a joyful fantasy that nonetheless urges caution for women everywhere. As Miss McVane puts it: “You’re right to be afraid. Because after the men plant their flag in this school, they’ll bury us. It will be subtle and insidious, as in real life.” Despite the mostly-happy endings for the schoolgirls (Abby ends up as a political prisoner), this is still a reminder that it’s hard for young women to succeed – and a reminder that single-sex environments, for a time, do help.
As toxic as so many single-sex environments in the Irish educational system are, it’s still something to ponder.