Girls kiss and tell it like it is

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Film - David Stratton

WEL­COME to the tragic uni­verse that is my sad life.’’ The words come from 14- year- old Ge­or­gia ( Ge­or­gia Groome), an English school­girl who lives in the un­cool sea­side town of East­bourne with her dot­ing par­ents, ec­cen­tric younger sis­ter and their cat, An­gus. Ge­or­gia is the cen­tral char­ac­ter in a se­ries of nine books by Louise Ren­ni­son that have struck a chord with younger read­ers.

The prob­lems of be­ing an in- be­tween age have been ex­plored in pop­u­lar cul­ture pretty ex­ten­sively. Judy Gar­land in The Wizard of Oz sang plain­tively about be­ing ‘‘ too old for toys but too young for boys’’.

To­day youngsters are far more aware and know­ing. In An­gus, Thongs and Per­fect Snog­ging, Ge­or­gia and her friends Jas ( Eleanor Tom­lin­son), Ellen ( Man­jeeven Gre­wal) and Rosie ( Ge­or­gia Hen­shaw) dis­cuss whether to wear old­fash­ioned knick­ers or up­grade to thongs. They worry about their po­ten­tial prow­ess as snog­gers.

This film is based on Ren­ni­son’s first two books, adapted by di­rec­tor Gurinder Chadha and three other screen­writ­ers. Chadha’s pre­vi­ous films in­clude Bend It Like Beck­ham and Bride and Prej­u­dice and she is, above all, a di­rec­tor who wants to en­ter­tain and charm audiences. In this she largely suc­ceeds; even if you’re long past the age of the char­ac­ters in this film, you can en­joy the world of th­ese girls who want, so badly, to be­come adults.

It’s in­ter­est­ing to com­pare Chadha’s film with the much more edgy Aus­tralian film Hey Hey It’s Es­ther Blue­burger , re­leased ear­lier this year. Both deal with the prob­lems of girls in roughly the same age group, and both aim for a kind of height­ened re­al­ism; but whereas the Aus­tralian di­rec­tor, Cathy Ran­dall, ex­plored some of the darker ar­eas of peer pres­sure and teen sex­u­al­ity, Chadha keeps it all bright and breezy.

Ge­or­gia’s prob­lems in­clude the fact that her par­ents ( Alan Davies, Karen Tay­lor) still snog, which is pretty dis­gust­ing. But mainly she stresses over the fact that she sees her­self as a Plain Jane and that she fan­cies sex god Rob­bie ( Aaron John­son), a new ar­rival in town. Jas, her best friend, starts dat­ing Rob­bie’s brother Tom ( Sean Bourke) and also starts wear­ing thongs. To Ge­or­gia’s dis­may Rob­bie seems to pre­fer Lind­say ( Kim­ber­ley Nixon), a sex­ily self- con­fi­dent blonde.

Ge­or­gia re­sorts to tak­ing snog­ging lessons from Peter ( Liam Hess), but it’s not the same, of course, and when her fa­ther an­nounces that he’s been of­fered a great job in New Zealand and the fam­ily will move there shortly, her care­fully bal­anced world starts to fall apart.

As the much- trou­bled heroine, Groome gives a lovely per­for­mance and there’s not a false note among the cast of young ac­tors. They chat­ter on and on about triv­i­al­i­ties of the great­est con­cern to them, and their di­a­logue sounds ac­cu­rate and well ob­served. The film’s set­ting also plays a role: East­bourne is mainly known as a re­tire­ment town and is full of old peo­ple, which adds an­other di­men­sion to the com­edy.

* * * THE fe­male char­ac­ters in the Le­banese film Caramel are older but not al­ways wiser, when it comes to men, than those English teenagers. This very charm­ing movie cen­tres on a hair­dress­ing sa­lon in Beirut, the women who work there and some of their clients. The sa­lon is owned by 30- year- old Lay­ale ( Na­dine Labaki, also the film’s di­rec­tor and co- screen­writer). Like al­most all un­mar­ried Chris­tian women in Beirut, Lay­ale lives with her par­ents, but that doesn’t stop her hav­ing a se­cret af­fair with a mar­ried man.

Nis­rine ( Yas­mine Al Masri), who works in the sa­lon, is about to marry but she has a prob­lem: she is a Mus­lim, and she lost her vir­gin­ity some time ago to an­other man. She will be in big trou­ble if, on her wed­ding night, her hus­band dis­cov­ers she is ‘‘ dam­aged goods’’. The only so­lu­tion is a visit to the hospi­tal for some stitch­ing. Rima ( Joanna Moukarzel) also works in the sa­lon, but she is hav­ing dif­fi­culty defin­ing her sex­u­al­ity and she’s at­tracted to a reg­u­lar cus­tomer. Like Al Masri, Moukarzel is not a pro­fes­sional ac­tor, but she’s very good in this dif­fi­cult role.

There’s also Ja­male ( Gisele Aouad), a cus­tomer older than some of the oth­ers who is try­ing rather des­per­ately to stay young. Fi­nally, Rose ( Si­hame Had­dad), who works nearby as a seam­stress, has missed out on mar­riage be­cause she has ded­i­cated her­self to car­ing for her men­tally dis­turbed sis­ter.

The lives of th­ese women are ex­plored in this very at­trac­tive dra­matic- com­edy; if a film about fe­male friends seems fa­mil­iar, I can only say that this sweet and touch­ing film shows up all the in­ad­e­qua­cies of its Amer­i­can equiv­a­lent, Sex and the City . Th­ese women face real prob­lems in a so­ci­ety that tol­er­ates dif­fer­ent faiths but still de­mands ad­her­ence to a strict code of con­duct.

The ti­tle refers to the mix­ture of su­gar, lemon juice and wa­ter used to re­move hair. It all looks rather un­pleas­ant. But of course the con­coc­tion also sug­gests the themes of the film: a mix­ture of sweet and sour, hap­pi­ness and heart­break.

This is quite an achieve­ment for Labaki, who de­picts her char­ac­ters with af­fec­tion and in­tel­li­gence. She re­veals a lot about the hypocrisies of th­ese com­mu­ni­ties, both Mus­lim and Chris­tian, and how con­tem­po­rary women are forced to deal with and adapt to prob­lems on an everyday ba­sis. It’s one of the best films about women you’re likely to see this year.

Not a false note: The young cast of An­gus, Thongs and Per­fect Snog­ging

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