Greta Gerwig’s LADY BIRD was released earlier this year to wide acclaim, and for good reasons: Few films have taken the trials and tribulations of teenage girls quite so seriously, and even fewer have managed to make their main character feel so wonderfully—and, at times, so frustratingly—relatable. If you’ve ever been a 17-year-old girl, you know what it’s like to screech at your mother in a blind rage (yikes), find out the first person you’ve set your heart on isn’t what they seem, or try to change yourself to better fit in with more popular girls (while pushing away the friends who really care about you).
As LADY BIRD so clearly illustrates, the best coming-of-age films are the ones that are incredibly personal yet more universally relatable—yet historically women have been quite underrepresented as writers and directors in the industry. This means our stories have often been told by men, or buried at the box office, or significantly altered, or centered around a male love interest, or not told at all. Which makes watching and celebrating the stories told for us, by us, all the more important. So starting with some important banner films from the silent era and moving all the way up through 2017, I present to you a curated canon of the most important entries from the genre.
Follow my full list of women’s coming-of-age films on Letterboxd here, and stay tuned for the next installment, in which we’ll explore the 1960s. Missed part one? Here it is.
It’s impossible to talk about women’s coming-of-age films from the 1950s without talking about the remarkable contributions of Ida Lupino. Lupino, of course, got her start as an actress in films like MONEY FOR SPEED and DRIVE BY NIGHT, but her adversarial relationship with studio heads led to her suspension from Warner Brothers, at which time she decided to try her hand at directing. She and husband Collier Young launched their own production company in 1949, with the intention of making issues-based films, which is exactly what they did. Dorothy Arzner—one of the biggest directors of Old Hollywood, had retired by 1943, and Lupino became the first female director to work on a major studio film with the release of NOT WANTED in 1949, where we’ll pick up with this installment. Stay tuned next week as we cover the 1960s.
NOT WANTED (1949): Lupino’s first credit as a director (and screenwriter) came in 1949 with NOT WANTED, a thriller about a dissatisfied 19-year-old woman (Sally Forrest) who gives her baby—conceived in a fling with a nomadic piano player—up for adoption and decides to kidnap another baby out of guilt. With a plot like that, you’d expect a pretty sensationalistic treatment, but the film is incredibly restrained and compassionate in its tone and treatment of its characters—"Life doesn't give us a means of finding love within the bounds of our conventions, and many of us will find it outside," Lupino told first lady Eleanor Roosevelt in a radio interview around the time of the film's release. As with most of her ouevre, Lupino strove for a realistic feel here, and she cast young, relatively unknown actors in the principal roles.
GIGI (1949): The original filmic adaptation of Colette's celebrated novella GIGI was helmed by Jacqueline Audry, and the comedy stars Danièle Delorme as Gigi, a teenager who falls in love with a family friend circa 1900. The only problem? Gigi’s been raised by her grandmother and aunt to be a courtesan, and at 16, she’s reached the age where her education is over and she’s expected to find a suitable older man of the high society to work her charms on. But our young heroine has other dreams for herself, and she expresses fear and disappointment in the face of a life spent satisfying men and being objectified. (Not to be confused with Vincente Minnelli’s 1958 American musical remake, of course.)
HARD, FAST, AND BEAUTIFUL (1951): Lupino’s 1951 drama tells the story of a young tennis prodigy, Florence (Sally Forrest again), who is torn between her overbearing mother’s ambitions for her and a very 1950s vision of domestic bliss. Martha Wilkerson (better known by her disc jockey name, GI Jill) wrote the screenplay, which offers up a cautionary tale on parents who try to live out their own dreams through their children—as Florence’s mother gets increasingly meddlesome in her daughter’s life, Florence spirals into alcoholism and despair. Wilkerson did a magnificent job at writing the mother (played to perfection by Claire Trevor) in particular: She clearly wants the best for her daughter—and pushes hard against the limits placed on women’s ambitions—but cannot see how insanely selfish her motives and actions are.
OLIVIA (1951): Jacqueline Audry’s OLIVIA (also released as THE PIT OF LONELINESS) covers a lot of the same territory as 1933’s MADCHEN IN UNIFORM, centering around two students at a French boarding school and their competition to win the heart of their female headmistress. Based off an autobiographical 1949 novel by Dorothy Bussy, the screenplay was written by Jacqueline Audry’s sister, Colette Audry, the film offers a look at bonds between women in a same-sex environment—at the time, sex researchers were beginning to posit that all-girls’ schools bred “pathological attachments” between women—in other words, the line between gay and straight is not so rigid.
HIGH SCHOOL HELLCATS (1958): B-movies from the 1950s focusing on hotrods and juvenile delinquents are in plentiful supply, but rarely did they focus on teenage girls. Actress Jan Lowell and her husband, Mark, got their first writing credits on 1958’s HIGH SCHOOL HELLCATS, an insanely fun exploitation film about a teenager who transfers to a new high school and is quickly sized up and initiated into a girl gang (inside an abandoned movie theater, no less). As with the Plastics of the mid-2000s, membership in the Hellcats is contingent upon following a number of rules, which include not getting good grades and only dating boys the gang has OK’d.