AMID all the recent rave reviews for the Ten Network’s reimagining of the beach teen classic Puberty Blues, there wasn’t always an acknowledgment of its deep undercurrents of the time: the racism, sexism, drug use and flatout emotional and physical abuse. Everyone gets that they’re there, but one of the things about drama that’s as good as this is how it can draw you in, making the darker bits of growing up all seem so natural.
The flares and brown prints and casual drink driving may appear quaintly amusing at this remove from the 1970s, but the story-lines that amount to gang rape — or the one that plots the inevitable, insidious decline towards a pointless death in the embrace of heroin, the poison that wrapped itself into so many communities of the time but particularly the surfing one — are blunt reminders of how fragile the entire set-up is. And while this column hasn’t generally been a place where anything other than ‘‘proper’’ films get a leg-in, for once it seems worth pointing out that if you haven’t seen Puberty Blues (Roadshow, $39.95) in its entirety, you need to. Anyone with even a passing interest in how we got where we are today should be watching it; although it has only just finished its first-season run on network TV, a second is reportedly in the works and all eight episodes of the Southern Star-produced series here are well worth your time.
Their release is enough of a reason to recommend also watching Bruce Beresford’s 1981 original, if you didn’t already get back to that on the strength of the recent publicity. That film, based on Kathy Lette and Gabrielle Carey’s 1979 novel of the same name and starring then teen actors Nell Schofield and Jad Capelja, stands up remarkably well as a document of its times. (And there’s Tim Finn’s delightfully whimsical theme song, sung by Sharon O’Neill, to enjoy.)
There was some sanitising of the story even in Beresford’s film — quite clearly the two leads are not the 13-year-olds of the book, nor, presumably, would audiences have accepted them being portrayed as such. There’s a limit, apparently, to how young a person can be when you’re going to abuse them on-camera.
But there’s another reason to go back to the TV series, and the film, and even Lette and Carey’s text (which, obviously, is worth also picking up again for the unvarnished picture of the Cronulla they depicted). That reason is the revelation barely two weeks ago in a powerful episode of the ABC documentary series Australian Story of the sad end of Capelja. While Schofield has gone on to have a varied career in the arts, including being one of the original devisers with Baz Luhrmann) of Strictly Ballroom, Capelja’s life went off the rails, caught in the grip of schizophrenia and drug use, and eventually she succumbed to suicide. There’s no moral here; just a painful acknowledgment that a tenuous hold on health and happiness can so easily be severed — and that’s what the best storytelling reminds us of. Puberty Blues does it in spades.