A TASTE OF HONEY
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, 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 the popular kids (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, and stay tuned for the next installment, in which we’ll explore the 1970s. Missed parts one (the early years) and two (1945 to 1960)? Catch up!
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BEAT GIRL (1960): Released in 1960, BEAT GIRL was ahead of its time—part pulpy thriller and part coming-of-age story, the film centers around Jenny (Gillian Hills), a counter culture–loving English teenager who escapes a tense home life with her distant workaholic architect father (and his super-young new wife, Nicole) by partying and carrying on with her beatnik friends at their favorite swingin’ London nightclub. Directed by Edmond T. Gréville, the screenplay was penned by the super-fascinating Dail Ambler (born Mabel Lillian Williams), a British author who made a name for herself in the 1950s as one of the only women working in the hard-boiled crime genre. Her trash-lit sensibilities definitely carry through in BEAT GIRL, where she’s packed in go-go dancers, Teddy Girls, and cold-blooded murder. Think REBEL WITHOUT A CAUSE (knife fights and games of chicken abound), only with a serious Electra complex.
A TASTE OF HONEY (1961): English writer Shelagh Delaney was still a teenager herself when she penned A TASTE OF HONEY, a rather dour film about a cynical 17-year-old outcast named Jo (played to perfection by then-newcomer Rita Tushingham) and her hard-drinking (and often neglectful) mother, Helen. Tony Richardson's film is kitchen-sink realism to the max—we see the pair climbing out of basement windows in order to avoid running into their landlord, drinking too much, and in general just being beaten down psychologically by life in their dreary working-class town (the same town Delaney herself grew up in). When unexperienced Jo falls in love with a boy from her neighborhood, things go just about as poorly as you can imagine. After the young man in question skips town to go work on a ship, Jo realizes she's pregnant and in no way ready to be a mother, and that the life she wants for herself isn't one society at large can understand. The film feels incredibly ahead of its time in many ways, tackling interracial relationships, family dysfunction, class division, and queer characters with surprising nuance.
GIRL WITH GREEN EYES (1964): Speaking of ill-advised flings with troubled men, Irish writer Edna O'Brien's screenplay for the Desmond Davis–directed GIRL WITH GREEN EYES has plenty to go around. O'Brien, who throughout her career wrote about female sexuality and societal notions of gender, based her screenplay off her own short story, THE LONELY GIRL, which tells the story of a naive teenage girl (Kate, played by Rita Tushingham as her follow-up role to A TASTE OF HONEY) who is seduced by a much older celebrated author (Eugene, played by Peter Finch) and quickly drawn into an incredibly unhealthy relationship. O’Brien’s film doesn’t romanticize the May-December relationship by any means—instead, it feels all too real in its depiction of the unequal power dynamic (and our young heroine’s illusion of control). Note that Tushingham isn't this film's only connection to A TASTE OF HONEY—GIRL WITH GREEN EYES was produced by Woodfall Films.
THE TROUBLE WITH ANGELS (1966): Ida Lupino returns to our list with a delightful comedy starring Hayley Mills and June Harding, and written by Blanche Hanalis (who, fun fact, would go on to be an incredibly prolific TV writer, working on shows like MY FAVORITE MARTIAN and LITTLE HOUSE ON THE PRAIRIE). The film is a Bechdel test–passing delight from start to finish, offering up one of the truest, most believable female friendships seen on screen—we see the impish "very simpatico" pair at St. Francis's Catholic boarding school smoking in the girls' room and struggling through P.E. classes, conspiring against the nuns. Though it's generally light-hearted, that's not to say there's a shortage of heart. In fact, there's a downright subversive bent to the proceedings—an enthusiasm for challenging gender norms and expectations, and the ability to see nuance and humanity in characters who could otherwise be cartoonish and one-note. See also: WHERE ANGELS GO, TROUBLE FOLLOWS, Hanalis's 1968 sequel.
DAISIES (1966): Legendary Czech auteur Vera Chytilová’s DAISIES (1966)—a freewheeling, totally insane feminist statement that was Riot Grrl decades before Riot Grrl became a thing—is a total departure from anything that came before it. At times frustratingly abstract but always 100% authentic and transgressive, the film (co-written by Ester Krumbachová, who also designed the costumes) centers around two teenage girls, both named Marie, who resolve in the film’s epilogue to follow the world’s lead (the film was shot post–Communist rule and pre–Soviet invasion, a time of extreme uncertainty for the country) and “go bad.” DAISIES is political on every level, and it takes special delight in destroying our cultural expectations of how women should act, mashing up stereotypically feminine costumes and imagery with the Maries and their hedonistic adventures. After eating an apple and “falling from grace,” the two are off being wined and dined by older men, participating in wild food fights, and carousing with abandon. Chytilová’s anarchic approach to filmmaking isn’t just limited to the content of the film’s plot; she frequently intercuts footage of bombs dropping and adds strong colored filters to the footage.
LAST SUMMER (1969): You know those goofy teenage beach movies from the ’50s? Yeah, that’s not this. Celebrated screenwriter Eleanor Perry’s originally X-rated adaptation of an Evan Hunter novel of the same name closes out the decade for us in incredibly dark, brutal fashion. The nihilistic film tells the story of three bored, rich, good-looking young teens—two boys and a girl (Sandy, played by Barbara Hershey)—who become fast friends one lazy summer out on Fire Island, spending their days sailing, fooling around, and going to the movies. Things all take a turn for the worst, though, when a shy, plump, precocious, trusting girl named Rhoda (Catherine Burns) enters the fold—Rhoda’s presence in their orbit ignites something vicious and cruel between the three, who take particular pleasure out of toying with her. The film culminates in one of the most harrowing displays of cruelty and complicity I’ve ever seen on screen, a disturbing and exacting look at the follower mentality that’s baked into the social hierarchies of teenagers.