Puberty Blues (1981)

puberty-blues-2

By Richard Winters

My Rating: 6 out of 10

4-Word Review: Girls can surf too!

Debbie and Sue (Nell Schofield, Jad Capelja) are best friends attending high school in the south suburbs of Sydney. They desperately want to fit-in with the surfer group, but find that this means being pressured into having sex and experimenting with drugs and alcohol that starts to take its toll on both their grades and family life. When Debbie thinks she’s gotten pregnant by Gary (Geoff Rhoe) and he responds with indifference she realizes that the surfers aren’t as cool as she thought and pledges to become more independent by trying to do some surfing of her own, which she is told ‘girls can’t do’.

The film is based on the novel by Gabrielle Carey and Kathy Lette who became best friends at age 12 and at 16 began writing stories based on their high school experiences. While attending a writer’s workshop they met Margaret Kelly who worked as a writer in television and was impressed with the girl’s output. She got their stories optioned into a screenplay while the girls went on to write a weekly newspaper column under the byline of The Salami Sisters and their stories were eventually published into a novel. The big change between the movie and the novel is that in the book the girls were only 13 while in the movie it gets upped to 16 since that was Australia’s age of consent.

Director Bruce Beresford ends up tearing away the mystique from teen life in much the same way that he did to suburbia in Don’s Party, which leaves the viewer with a far more caustic take on the high school experience than the Hollywood version, which tends to play up the teen scene like it’s just one big raucous party. Here the cool kids are vapid, crass creatures who are unable to hold any type of interesting conversation. Their parties are lifeless affairs where they aimlessly sit around and get drunk because they have nothing better to do while the sex is shown to be an unpleasant experience for the girls who get pressured into doing it before they’re ready and leave feeling used afterwards.

This was more the way I remembered high school being and I was impressed with the film’s honesty, but the pace is too leisurely and not enough happens. There is some drama when Debbie thinks she is pregnant, but it takes an entire hour just to get there and a comical segment dealing with a goofy fight amongst the surfers, which was not in the book, is completely unnecessary.

The film though does have some funny bits including a scene where Debra brings her boyfriend Bruce (Jay Hackett) over to meet her parents (Kirrilly Nolan, Alan Cassell) as well as the shots showing the interior and exterior of Bruce’s van. This though gets coupled with an uncomfortable moment dealing with a homely girl (Tina Robinson Hansen) who gets tricked into getting into the guy’s van where she is forced into a gang bang before being coldly thrown onto the curb afterwards.

The best part is the ending where the girls grow in confidence and become unafraid at challenging the status quo. Seeing the shocked expressions  of the cool kids as they watch the girls get on surf boards for the first time and succeed at something they were told only guys could do is a treat and makes the rest of the film worth sitting through.

Many years later this movie spawned a TV-series as well as a special that aired in 2012 on Australian TV where Nell Schofield traveled back to the locations where the film was made. Unfortunately her costar Jad Capelja was not present as she had already killed herself in 2010 after spending years battling drug addiction and mental illness.

puberty-blues-1

My Rating: 6 out of 10

Released: December 10, 1981

Runtime: 1Hour 27Minutes

Rated R

Director: Bruce Beresford

Studio: Roadshow Film Distributors

Available: VHS, DVD (Pal Region 0), Blu-ray (Region B/2)

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