The Dark Recesses of Female Adolescence Explored in Two Unsettling Movies: 'The Falling' and ‘Girlhood'

The dark recesses of female adolescence have long provided fertile soil for fiction, and perhaps for cinema in particular. From Picnic at Hanging Rock to Heavenly Creatures to My Summer of Love to The Virgin Suicides, the on-screen tumults of burgeoning womanhood have been by turns intense, strange, erotic and even deadly. Two new films join that small but notable canon this month: Carol Morley’s The Falling, which depicts a breakout of mass fainting at a 1960s girls’ school, and Céline Sciamma’s Girlhood, the tale of a girl whose trajectory is thrown off-course when she joins a formidable all-female gang.

Though the word awkward is used to the point of cliché when it comes to adolescence, there simply is no better word to describe the restlessness, confusion and, well, awkwardness of being a teenager. The Falling’s cohort of strictly disciplined schoolgirls certainly aren’t immune. They are all at different stages of sexual development, one by one seeing the innocence of childhood giving way to a new worldliness that is both exciting and terrifying. A single unexpected tragedy is all it takes for a pressure cooker of restrained tension to boil over, and the school is soon in the grips of the fainting epidemic that so mystifies and enrages the girls’ elders.

'The Falling' is beguiling from the start, directed with real visual flair

The Falling is beguiling from the start, directed with real visual flair and suffused with atmosphere, and it really comes into its own once the mass hysteria begins. The faints progress from heavy thuds to intricately choreographed swoons, devices which allow Morley to touch upon more tenuous themes of powerlessness and obsession. The film’s ethereal style powerfully captures the characters’ conflicting emotions, which are as potent and inexplicable as the faints themselves. The plot’s roundabout approach to its subject matter, meanwhile, constantly wrong-foots the audience, threatening to stumble into abstraction before suddenly coming back into narrative focus. It doesn’t trouble itself with pinning down an exact explanation for the apparent hysteria – whether it’s due to physical, psychosomatic or even supernatural causes is up for debate. This all results in a heady experience where no event or relationship is as straightforward as it first seems, and which is guaranteed to linger in the mind.

Girlhood, in contrast, is a slab of social realism set in the hardscrabble Parisian banlieues. It follows Marieme, an aimless sixteen-year-old who becomes involved with a group of glamorous but violent girls (think the Plastics from Mean Girls, but armed with shanks rather than sharp tongues). Sciamma signposts a little too obviously that these girls are trouble, but eventually subverts the idea. In fact, as Marieme confronts a violent home and an education system that expects nothing of her, these girls – troublesome as they are – become her only source of warmth and solidarity, and the film is sufficiently nuanced not to underestimate this fact’s importance. 

Both filmmakers convincingly evoke a time when emotions and relationships are at unprecedented - and rarely to be repeated - levels of intensity

Sciamma makes their appeal, and Marieme’s need for belonging, palpable; the viewer has no problem in understanding her attraction. Living on the margins in terms of her gender, ethnicity and class, to Marieme it doesn’t matter that the opposing gangs have few distinguishable differences, or that their fights consist of hurling vacuous inanities like ‘dumb-ass!’ and ‘loser!’ Likewise, it is of little consequence whether the ‘real’ Marieme is the good girl we first meet, or the drug-peddling aggressor she morphs into. The fact of her need, and the reasons for behind it, are what matters.

Unfortunately, a wealth of standout moments here are let down by a film that overstays its welcome. Like last year’s similarly-titled Boyhood, its project is one of verisimilitude and understated cinéma vérité realism, but without that film’s sheer scope often feels a bit adrift, particularly in a third act that meanders badly.

That isn’t to detract from the bold approach both films take towards their shared thematic concerns. Both lift the lid on rarely-aired aspects of female youth: in The Falling the near-psychic connection girls can share in the face of a world that doesn’t understand them, in Girlhood the pure, unrestrained anger that sometimes surges through adolescence. Both filmmakers convincingly evoke a time when emotions and relationships are at unprecedented - and rarely to be repeated - levels of intensity.

That evocation is important. In The Falling, one of the main frustrations for Maisie William’s character Lydia is the way that female (especially young female) experience is trivialised and brushed under the carpet. Her biggest fight is simply to be recognised – for her grievances and aspirations to be granted a credible voice. Girlhood and The Falling both grant young female experience that credible voice. They might be bumpy, even unsettling rides for many viewers, but by treating female adolescence with the validity it’s all too often denied both shine.

More about the author

About the author

Harry Mason likes to call himself a freelance writer, even if his tax forms say he's technically a waiter. He graduated last year from the University of East Anglia, and writes predominantly about social politics and film. He looks forward to the day when he's able to grow a beard; until then, you'll just have to blame his so-called 'bleeding heart lefty views' on youthful naivety.

Follow Harry on Twitter.

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