Growing Pains @ BFI Flare 2021: My First Summer

Dir: Katie Found
16-year-old Claudia (Markella Kavenagh) and her mother have lived Claudia’s whole life hidden in a cabin in the woods, away from the outside world. After her mother drowns herself, Claudia is surprised when Grace (Maiah Stewardson), who saw the incident, turns up at the cabin. The two develop a friendship that Grace doesn’t seem to have with other teens and that might help bring Claudia out of her hermetically sealed world just a little.

Much of Australian writer/director Katie Found’s feature debut has an almost fairytale feel about it. Claudia’s world, the one Grace first lets herself into and then is granted increasing access to by Claudia, is a place where they seem almost entirely insulated from the outside world. Free from adult influence, they can mess around, eat what they like, and discover themselves. Though both girls are sixteen, they seem younger, Claudia because she has been kept naive about the world by her mother and Grace in the way she dresses all in pink and friendship bracelets, and seems only to eat sweets and chocolate and drink strawberry milk.

The connection between the two girls is forged in stages, Grace’s friendship drawing Claudia out and helping her deal with her mother’s suicide. In one sweetly sad scene, Grace goes for a swim in a shallow part of the river and tries to coax Claudia in with her. When they go underwater, Claudia panics, but Grace—taking on the role Claudia’s mother should have played—holds her, comforts her and makes her feel safe. There is a tenderness in this moment that we see throughout their relationship and the film as a whole, and which makes the connection between the girls something palpable.

Katie Found’s direction also contributes to the tender and intimate feeling of the film. Many of the interactions between Grace and Claudia are observed primarily in close up, the world a hazy thing surrounding them but not really impacting on them. There are of course breaks from this; the aforementioned river scene, a scene of the two dyeing Claudia’s sheets, which turns into a water fight, but most of the time the focus is tightly on the girls and their ever closer bond. It’s a directorial choice that also focuses us on gaze, especially on the way that Grace looks at Claudia with increasing, sometimes thwarted, desire. An amusing example of this comes when, clearly trying to get Claudia to kiss her, Grace asks her to guess different flavours of lip balm and is subtly, but visibly, frustrated when Claudia initially guesses just from the smell. 

Markella Kavenagh and Maiah Stewardson bring the growing bond between the girls to life with playful performances that portray a great comfort in the connection that Grace and Claudia find in each other, which builds into a convincing romantic chemistry. There is always a little more edge in Stewardson’s performance; a sense that Claudia, naive thanks to her upbringing, could misread something from Grace, but Kavenagh’s gentle performance shows us how quickly Grace begins to understand this.

The real world looms throughout. Cops looking into Claudia’s mother’s suicide talk to Grace several times, but she keeps Claudia secret, first because the idea of leaving the house is terrifying for her (almost the first thing she says to Grace is “If they know I’m here they’ll take me away”) and because Grace wants to keep this little world, and the relationship growing within it, for herself. When the fairytale is punctured it’s traumatic, but it also brings the girls together in a lovely final moment that is at once uncertain and hopeful. 

I’ve been using words like tender, intimate and fairytale to describe My First Summer, but that’s not to say that it’s purely lightweight. There is darkness and emotional pull in Claudia’s shell-shocked response to her mother’s suicide. In one brief sequence, Claudia sees her mother, first as she remembers her and then as she last saw her; soaking wet and going to her death. This is one of a few moments that bring to the surface Maiah Stewardson’s portrayal of that initial emotional disconnect and a more enduring survivor's guilt.

Overall, this is a very promising debut from Katie Found, it has that hazy feel of a memory of a teenage summer, but the mixed emotions provoked by the story and performances always remain in focus.


Streaming Suggestion: The Karla Trilogy

Karla og Jonas

I am about to start a new series here at Growing Pains, looking at failed and unfinished YA franchise adaptations. This trilogy would definitely not count for that series. I wasn’t aware of the Karla series of novels by Danish writer, and former supermodel, Renée Toft Simonsen until the film adaptations dropped as part of a glut of Scandinavian content that has recently been added to UK Netflix (with plenty of interesting coming of age films in the mix). I accidentally ended up watching the series backwards, but for the record the three films—all directed by Charlotte Sachs Bostrup—are Karla’s Kabale [2007] (apparently literally a reference to Solitaire, but translated as Karla’s World), Karla og Katrine [2009] and Karla og Jonas [2010].

The series begins with ten-year-old Karla (played throughout the series by Elena Arndt-Jensen) living with her Mother, Rikke (Ellen Hillingsø), stepfather, Leif (Nicolaj Kopernikus) brother, Mads-Morten (Nikolaj Støvring Hansen) and half-brother, who is only ever called Lillebror (Jonathan Werner Juel). It’s almost Christmas and Karla is upset because her mother won’t let Karla and Mads-Morten’s father (Allan Olsen) come to Christmas dinner. After an argument, Karla runs away. The second film explores the relationship between Karla and her school friend Katrine (Nanna Koppel). They used to be best friends, but they’ve drifted apart a little and Karla wants to mend the rift, so she invites Katrine on a family holiday. There’s some tension between them when they meet Jonas (Joshua Berman), who is on holiday with a foster family, but usually lives in a children’s home. In the final film, Karla wants to get back in touch with Jonas, with whom she had her first kiss at the end of the last film, and they end up going on a mission to find his mother.

Something that is often said about the Harry Potter films is that they, as films, grew up with their characters. That’s true to a point, but it’s really more of a gear shift, from the bright and fairly kid-oriented first two entries to the darkness that encroached on Prisoner of Azkaban. I think the Karla series grows particularly well with its main character. Karla is 10 in the first film, 12 in the second and 13 in the third, and the screenplays never make her into a miniature adult. Sometimes this is done in ways that are very typical of movies for and about kids, for instance with a sequence in the first film when Karla’s mother is ill, and Karla struggles with being ‘the grown-up for the day’, failing to keep her brothers from wreaking havoc in the house, but at other times it’s more subtle. In each of the films, but especially the first and third, Karla strikes out without her family. When she runs away in Karla’s World it’s clear how naive and vulnerable she is right from the start, when she spends almost all of her money on an elaborate Christmas ornament, not really thinking about food or shelter. The series isn’t afraid to address adult problems, such as Karla’s dad’s alcoholism; being in a blended family, or why a child might be given up for adoption, from a child’s eye view, but Charlotte Sachs Bostrup pulls off something quietly remarkable. She deals with these themes without ever talking down to her audience (okay, there are a few toilet jokes in the first two films, but they feel quite separate from the more serious side), and she does so without ever making the world feel too dark. 
Karla Og Katrine

For my personal taste, the films get better as they go along, and the way each allows Karla to grow, by making us feel that the experiences of the last film have fed into how she responds to the situations she finds herself in in the next. This is especially clear in Karla and Jonas, where she is clearly more wary of asking for help when she and Jonas, searching for his mother, find themselves stranded in an unfamiliar town overnight, it’s clear that some of the experiences she had running away in Karla’s World influence how she behaves. We can also see this evolution in Elena Arndt-Jensen’s performance; she’s charming and energetic in the first film, but by the time of the third there’s clearly more going on behind what she’s doing, we can see more layers in Karla’s reactions to events.

I don’t want to go into great depth here, because this isn’t a review, just a recommendation. None of these films are great masterpieces of the genre, but they work as coming of age movies collectively as well as individually, and I find that’s rather rare in a series of films. Serious themes are addressed, but in a way that will be suitable for kids of the same age Karla is in each film (one caveat, if you’re especially sensitive about the language your kids hear, occasional S worlds give way to a fair few F bombs in Karla og Jonas). The performances, kids and adults, are excellent, and the family dynamic is so well written that it conjured a lot of memories for me of growing up with step-siblings around frequently. If you’re interested either in coming of age movies or in something intelligent to watch with older children, the Karla series is well worth a look.


Billie Eilish: The World's A Little Blurry [15]

Dir: RJ Cutler
Unless you’ve had your head in the sand for the past three or four years, you’ve heard of Billie Eilish. I was, as ever, a latecomer, only discovering her with the video for When The Party’s Over, but she had been building a dedicated and exponentially expanding fanbase online for some time before that. A key part of her appeal, perhaps especially to her own generation (she is still just 19), is her apparent openness and honesty. She’s been candid, in her music and interviews, about depression, anxiety, her Tourette syndrome, and much more, forging a strong connection with her fanbase. In The World’s A Little Blurry, director RJ Cutler (a prolific documentarian, perhaps best known for The September Issue) takes a long close-up look at Eilish and her family in the time between the writing of her first album and her triumph at her first Grammys.

Perhaps perversely for a film about a hugely successful musician, the parts of The World’s A Little Blurry that dwell on the music are often the least interesting passages of the film, or rather they’re only particularly interesting in how they contribute to what the film really strikes me as; a study of a sometimes vulnerable, ultimately very normal, teenager as she navigates extraordinary circumstances, and deals with the usual teenage bullshit. This is partly because her process with her brother and producer Finneas has been well documented, seeing them actually construct songs is instructive, as are the extensive concert sequences, and some of the behind the scenes looks at the struggles of touring, but these are the elements of the film that we already know and that feel like they could come from any documentary about a touring musician. They are also arguably where Cutler could reduce what is an overindulgent 140-minute running time. 

What’s more interesting is the picture the film builds of Eilish. She and Finneas are both clearly preternaturally talented and you would expect that to manifest in confidence in what they do, we definitely see that in Finneas, especially when he says he aims for every song they write to be the best song they’ve ever written, but it seems not to be the case for Billie, who we often see needing her brother’s encouragement and reassurance. Much of the footage just between Eilish and her family looks as though it was shot by them, or certainly with a very tiny crew, and while of course editing can radically alter perception in documentaries, each moment at least seems honest and unfiltered. Billie and Finneas’ parents emerge as interesting characters here. Many things, as when her Dad gives Billie a ‘be careful’ speech the first time she is about to take her car out on her own, then reminisces about the end of his daughter’s childhood, are very normal everyday parent moments, but obviously, the circumstances are also often almost surreal. Their mother and father are sometimes visibly astonished by what’s happening to their children’s lives, but also seeming to do a good job of taking it in stride and help their daughter process it. Only in one moment do they seem to sugarcoat something, saying “we let you down” when she is upset over negative feedback after a meet and greet she didn’t want to do with record company people, but again there’s insight here; a moment less of managing an artist and more of managing a teenager who had a moment where she was just sick of doing something.

The World’s A Little Blurry is a coming-of-age film of sorts. Not only does it mark milestone birthdays, it uses both Billie’s learning to drive and a relationship (which never seems all that healthy) as throughlines, charting important stages of each of them. The relationship in particular seems to see her grow up. Early on we overhear several cutesy conversations on the phone, later we find Eilish bemoaning the fact that her boyfriend won’t make more time for her and one troubling moment finds her telling her parents that, even though he hurt himself punching a wall, this guy would never hit a person. By the end of the film, we definitely see a person with more perspective and a greater understanding both of what she wants and why neither she nor her boyfriend was getting it in that relationship. It’s a real maturation. I would say we also see maturation in Eilish’s relationship with Justin Bieber. We hear a lot about how, when she was 12, she was so obsessed with him that her mother considered getting her therapy and, in one of the film’s most disarming moments, we see their first meeting, and Eilish very much back to being that little girl, sobbing while Bieber hugs her. By the end though, we find her much more assured and comfortable; touched but not overwhelmed when Bieber calls to congratulate her after the Grammys.

Much as they do in her music, I think Billie Eilish’s fanbase will find much to connect with in The World’s A Little Blurry. Eilish is open about her challenges and problems (an impactful moment shows us a page from her journal written when she was self-harming), and the end of the doesn’t find her having unlocked all the answers, but what her fans have always seemed to find in her is someone whose experiences reflect their own and who can articulate them in a way that speaks powerfully to them. This film, while it’s overlong and restates plenty of things we’ve already heard from and about Eilish, will also give them that.