Welcome to the summer heatwave. Here in mid-America, it's about 1000 degrees outside - and depending on one's cultural intake, it could be that hot indoors, as well. And that's just for the ladies: In bookstores, "50 Shades of Grey", a spicy romance series reportedly featuring something of a sexual novice as the identifiable main character (Hey, I don't read this stuff, I only write about it!) (And very little, at that) is the sweltering phenomenon that won't go away. At the movies, we see a similar need for release being demanded by the fairer sex. And so, dear readers, this time, our travels take us into the curvy, uncertain roads of repressed female sexuality in current films. Two movies, both small, indie endeavors opt to examine different yet surprisingly similar aspects of this topic. Both are currently making the rounds in U.S. art house theaters, and are just now coming through my native Midwestern town.
The first one, Sweden's lightly sullen TURN ME ON, DAMMIT!
, could be that country's intentionally contorted take on the 1980's American teen comedy. Despite the brazen title and whatever implications one reads into it, the spirit of John Hughes is far more present than that of, say, Vilgot Sjöman (of I AM CURIOUS (YELLOW) fame). In a perpetually bleakly color-timed village (where everything is in a cool blue hue, no doubt symbolically reflecting our protagonist's inner something-something) in the otherwise picturesque green hills of Sweden lives Alma (Helene Bergsholm), an unapologetically horny teenage girl. (Don't get too excited, this isn't that kind of movie. Not really.)
Although Bergsholm's Alma is never unattractive, and is in fact easy on the eyes in her own way, the characters that occupy her world regard her as just another invisible girl, going nowhere (as expected). It's the "Pretty Ugly Girl" phenomenon of movies like SHE'S ALL THAT, riffed on effectively way back when in NOT ANOTHER TEEN MOVIE. Withhold make-up, stay out of the hair salon, and hold one's books close, and viola! Any budding starlet can be a requisite ugly duckling. To this film's credit, however, we never get the clichéd "prom dress scene", where our heroine makes all jaws drop when her inevitable transformation is revealed. (It helps that there's no curved staircase in Alma's house.)
Anyhow, in this barely 70 minute puff of a film, Alma goes to a party and ends up ostracized not just by her fellow high schoolers, but her entire community. Why would this innocent young thing (despite her contradictory urges) find herself in such a fix? It's not because Artur (Matias Myren), the boy she's been crushing on forever, decided at the party that it was a good idea to poke her in the thigh with his man-thing. No, it's because she told a few people that it happened. Next thing you know, Alma is saddled with the nickname "Dick-Alma", while Artur suffers no consequence whatsoever. (He is a good little choirboy, after all.) This renders her a real world version of Emma Stone in EASY A - the whore who wasn't.
In the meantime, Alma's already taken to calling a phone sex line, and is starting to look at porn here and there. When her shell-shocked mother confronts her on all of this, not to mention her noisy private time in her bedroom, Alma embraces it all as a chance to further horrify dear old mom.
All of this begs the question, is Alma a pervert? Some sort of weird sex fiend in the making? Or is she just a reflection of what's normal in the life of a contemporary teen girl? If this is normal, is it okay? Heaven knows teenage horniness is almost as old as creation itself. (Never mind that the film depicts Alma as the only horny girl in her sphere of friends.) But when the film's own marketing campaign opts to exploit the perceived taboo of this situation as a selling point, we know that the gender equality playing field isn't as level as we'd sometimes like to tell ourselves it is. The tagline reads "How come there are so many movies about a teenage boy who wants to have sex and this the only one about a teenage girl who wants to have sex?
Indeed, you're being dared. What they don't tell you is that TURN ME ON, DAMMIT!, with its brief running time and shrug-like attitude, is hormonal teen angst in a bottle, never released. And that, whatever your thoughts on the nature of teenage girl sexuality are, is in itself a furtherance of the repression Alma feels. (Her sex life isn't the only thing hitting a brick wall - in her village it's generally accepted that no one ever goes anywhere in life.) So maybe that's the point - that this issue is never uncorked, never addressed, and that's how it will continue to be.
And then there's NATURAL SELECTION
, another low budget indie with a sexually repressed female main character living in another rusty and rundown world. Meet Linda (Rachel Harris), a devoutly Christian woman stuck in a sticky wicket of a marriage. Unlike Alma, Linda's story takes her on the road, and outside of her comfort zone, for a sizeable portion of the film, each locale more of a filth-ridden junk-riddled area than the last. The reason for this trip? To find a man she's newly identified as her stroke-addled husband's son - a product of his decades-running secret trips to the sperm donor clinic. This practice was, in part, his extremist-Christian way of not "wasting his seed" on his apparently infertile wife. (That's right - since he and Linda can't conceive; he denies her any and all sex, despite her desperate late night advances.) And just because in all my years as a person of faith I've never heard of a marital precedent as downright whacked-out as this one, that doesn't mean that writer/director Robbie Pickering can't sell me on the premise. He in fact did.
NATURAL SELECTION is a stunningly human tragedy/comedy/drama/road movie built effectively on the sit-com premise of two completely dissimilar extreme individuals stuck together. Raymond (Matt O'Leary), the missing son in question, turns out to be a substance abusing, longhaired, tattooed escaped convict with the vocabulary to match. When Linda comes a-knocking, with her CCM music and cross stitch sensibilities, it doesn't take him long to decide that hitting the road with her beats hanging around his Florida hideout/home, for any number of reasons. What follows is an unexpected cacophony of screwiness amid poignant character revelation through terrific performances. Although Linda and Raymond are extreme characters, Pickering never mocks either of them, instead opting not to judge them, and let their humanity come through. In the positive space between LITTLE MISS SUNSHINE and HIGHER GROUND, there you'll find NATURAL SELECTION. It's one of the better movies I've seen all year.
So this begs the question, when both a Swedish teen girl and an American sheltered Christian woman can't seem to get any satisfaction, no matter how hard they try, what exactly are the movies telling us about the overall universal state of women?
For cinematic release, some may prescribe a matinee of Steven Soderbergh's MAGIC MIKE
, the decent but meandering faux-autobiographical tale of Channing Tatum, showclub stripper. But Soderbergh did not make the girls-night-out "WOOOOO!"-fest that the film is being marketed as. Once Tatum flashes his bare posterior in the first minutes of the film, the filmmaker immediately one-ups that nudity with a nonchalantly topless Olivia Munn. And then no more Tatum skin for the rest of the movie. Indeed, MAGIC MIKE is very much another Steven Soderbergh experiment in convention, albeit this time delivered in Chippendales' clothing (or lack thereof). Of course, my admittedly terminally male perspective on such things may misguide my prognosis that MAGIC MIKE denies release for lack of skin. But nonetheless, as much fun as MAGIC MIKE is as an all around movie, there remains reason to believe that in its own way, its mis-marketed allure is simply indicative of Matthew McConaughey's (stealing every scene he's in) club MC edict of "look but no touch."
Anyhow, as a straight dude just trying to connect the dots at the movies, I don't know the exact depth or seriousness of what I'm seeing here. To turn the tables for a moment, when it comes to male sexual repression in films, that tends to be the stuff of comedy (10, THE WOMAN IN RED, the list goes on). With women, it's no laughing matter, particularly right now. From my seat in the Sportscoach, it looks like the ladies have some overall frustration brewing. (To many, that's a "duh!" statement if they ever heard one.) Not necessarily about sex per se, although that makes for an effective cinematic metaphor. These films, when taken together in this way, are definitely telling us something, and maybe it's time we listened. Let's hope the heatwave breaks soon.
- Jim Tudor