By R. Kurt Osenlund | Indiewire June 7, 2013 at 9:58AM
Back in 2010, a little-known 13-year-old named Chloë Grace-Moretz appeared as the vigilante Hit-Girl in Matthew Vaughn's "Kick-Ass," a film that saw the actress, just 11 at the time of production, spill ample blood, endure serious beatings, and spout expletives like "cunt." Jaws dropped, eyebrows rose, and Moretz became a bona fide star. In films as diverse as "Let Me In" and "Hick," she has since assumed the mantle of Hollywood's go-to jailbait badass, carving out a whole new archetype as the markedly young envelope-pusher, who dances the line between feministic and fetishistic and makes lots of folks squirm in the process.
Moretz will soon return to the screen with two new projects, reprising her role as Hit-Girl in August's "Kick-Ass 2," and starring as the ultimate girl gone wild in Kimberly Peirce's "Carrie" remake (set for release in October). The now 16-year-old ingénue is back in signature form, but this year, she's hardly without company. Since March, we've seen an eruption of films with barely-legal female characters doing all manner of objectionable things, be they criminal, sexual, or all of the above. In Harmony Korine's "Spring Breakers," Geoffrey Fletcher's "Violet & Daisy" (out today in select theaters) and Sofia Coppola's "The Bling Ring" (opening June 14), youthful specimens of the fairer sex are out to rock and shock you, doing things they've arguably never done on film before. There's no telling if it's thanks to Moretz's influence, but 2013 is certainly the year of girls behaving badly at the movies. What's not so certain is whether that's a good or bad thing for women.
Korine's film, a day-glo, surrealist romp that skewers the seaside mythos of wet T-shirts and beer bongs, stars Selena Gomez, Vanessa Hudgens, Ashley Benson, and Korine's wife, Rachel Korine, as a quartet of party-hungry coeds, whose romanticized notions of the hedonistic tradition devolve into a crime-fueled nightmare of "Scarface" proportions. Korine knew what he was doing when he cast two Disney Channel princesses (Gomez and Hudgens) and one ABC Family starlet (Benson of "Pretty Little Liars") in a film that ostensibly exploits their youth and sex appeal for titillating (and ticket-selling) purposes. But many would argue that such apparent stunt casting relates to the point of Korine's message, which transcends exploitation to make a larger cultural critique, about women, about delusion, and about the temptations our society sells as the norm. Xan Cassavetes, daughter of the late, great John Cassavetes, and director of this year's "Kiss of the Damned," which includes its fair share of femmes fatale, is a champion of the film.
"What I thought I was going to see when I went to see 'Spring Breakers' was totally different than what I saw," Cassavetes says. "I saw it twice. I loved it. I don't see it as a validation [of what it depicts], but as a poetic look at what these types of girls go and do. There's an empty beauty about that lifestyle that isn't so empty anymore when you fill it up with something like this movie and these characters. And I think all those actresses are cool for being in this movie. They're automatically in on their own joke."
But not everyone dug the irony of the guns-and-bikinis conceit, including renowned writer and reviewer Carrie Rickey, who served as chief film critic for The Philadelphia Inquirer for 25 years. "I didn't find the young women in 'Spring Breakers' empowered," Rickey says. "I thought they were a masturbatory fantasy for men, and I thought the film itself was a Maxim magazine fantasy of hot chicks, which is not my cup of Oolong."
By contrast, Coppola's "The Bling Ring" doesn't see its comely foursome shed their clothes, but rather pile them on, rocking the pricey garments and accessories worn by the likes of Paris Hilton, after stealing them from the L.A. homes of the socialites themselves. Based on actual teens who did these deeds circa 2008, the titular girl group—which also features a boy, Israel Broussard's shy Marc—includes fame-obsessed characters played by young stars Katie Chang, Claire Julien, Taissa Farmiga, and, most notably, an emphatically ditzy Emma Watson. As Rickey observes, "The Bling Ring" is framed around the notion that its key figures "have false values," and, like the gals in "Spring Breakers," chase a glitzy dream that's shallow, but socially validated. Cassavetes feels that Coppola's film is "more critical [than Korine's] of the time we're living in," and it's particularly interesting that, of "Spring Breakers," "Violet & Daisy," and "The Bling Ring," the latter, the only one helmed by a woman, is by far the most satirical and the toughest on its characters. The way Coppola, specifically, takes advantage of Watson's casting, giving the "Harry Potter" alum a very juicy role, but funneling the innocence with which she's associated into the pointed depiction of an ignorant airhead, seems to be brimming with a strong woman's harsh judgment—a sisterly scolding of the sort of girls who give other girls a bad name. It all calls to mind the issue of gender in authorship, and, in regard to these projects, the differences between a male and female gaze behind the camera.
"I think it depends entirely on the individual," says "Violet & Daisy" writer-director Fletcher, whose last project, the script for "Precious," netted him an Oscar. "For me, there is a great deal more to the female universe in terms of interesting cinematic storytelling, and a well-told story has no gender. If you have a genuine passion and respect for your subject matter, that is what comes through, and that's far more important than any gender or background difference that may exist between subject and author."
Starring Alexis Bledel and Saoirse Ronan, respectively, as its eponymous young assassins, Fletcher's film hinges on the stark juxtaposition of naughty and nice, sour and sweet, watching its leading ladies riddle their targets with bullets, but also play patty-cake and hopscotch while blowing bubblegum. Crafting a deliberately farcical, gritty fairytale of a crime flick, Fletcher, however unwittingly, follows the Moretz example most closely, taking the grisly acts so often performed in murderous, male-centric thrillers (the work of Tarantino is a surefire influence) and placing them in the gentle hands of wide-eyed girls who can't even drink at the bar (Bledel, for the record, is an uncannily fresh-faced 31, and Rachel Korine is 28, but the median age of all of these characters is roughly 20 years old).
"I thought that telling a modern, coming-of-age crime story through a female perspective had the potential to offer something new," Fletcher says. "I thought it would be interesting to make a film where girls have guns but remain girls. I also think that women behaving badly [in films] is okay as long as the consequences of that behavior are explored."
All three films in question here are undoubtedly cautionary tales, albeit with varying degrees of directness. "Violet & Daisy" probably has the most familiar, forgiving arc, with a bounty of redemption at the end of its proverbial rainbow. But the way it wags its finger at destructive life choices is a scrutiny shared by "Spring Breakers" and "The Bling Ring," two movies that are unmistakably linked in terms of tone and commentary. Both kick off abruptly with paradoxical assaults of the visual and the aural, ogling glorious beachfront debauchery and chic designer jewelry while cacophonous music blares on the soundtrack (Korine's film begins with Skrillex's "Scary Monsters and Nice Sprites," while Coppola's opts for Sleigh Bells's "Crown on the Ground," two reins-free jams that are even apt in name). The tunes establish the corruptive potential, and even horror, of all the "coolness" on display, and speak to the uniformly vacuous pursuits of all the girls in these films. If "Spring Breakers" lampoons the sun-soaked depravity endorsed by "MTV's Spring Break," then "The Bling Ring" likewise sticks it to the indulgences popularized by "MTV Cribs" and all the aggressive celebrity obsessions that have followed. In "Violet & Daisy," the hitwomen take a “job” so they can purchase couture dresses by their favorite pop star, Barbie Sunday, a fictional stand-in for Ke$ha, Rihanna, Britney, and their heavily-branded ilk.
"However much these fantasies have always been part of being a girl, I don't think they've ever been sold to girls so aggressively,” Fletcher says. “Today it's much easier to get swept up in consumerism and celebrity fixation. If we're losing our way, perhaps it's not because we're bad people; perhaps we're adjusting to a new era, the likes and power of which we've never seen before."
Fletcher, Korine, and Coppola may be releasing post-MTV Generation critiques, but they're also dropping filmic bombs in the era of social media, which gives immediate power to just about anyone, and continues to lower the age of those with access and influence. "The Bling Ring," specifically, embeds a collage of social media right into its aesthetic, showing selfies, profile pages, and videos in a manner that looks viral in more ways than one. Rickey states that "The Bling Ring"'s glut of social-media iconography "reflects only the influence of how those social media sites signify a generational expression, as flannel shirts and stubble signified grunge." But flannel shirts and stubble didn't grant someone a seemingly limitless, potentially dangerous two-way portal to the world, through which power (and illusions of power) can be given and received in seconds. And while Rickey also opines that “the corruptions of fame and power are equal-opportunity destroyers for boys and girls alike," Royal Pingdom's most recent social-network demographic study, conducted in August 2012, revealed that Facebook and Twitter both have a 60-40 female-to-male user ratio, and that 17 out of the 24 most popular social media sites (71 percent) have more female users than male, suggesting that this particular potential corrupter has a particular audience (or, perhaps, prey).
"It's really gross, what's happening in our culture," Cassavetes says. "What's going on now is people just gossiping and wanting to be famous. Girls like the ones in 'The Bling Ring' probably think they're doing the right thing, like, 'I'm being responsible for my own happiness. This is what you do. You go, and you get yours, and you post it.' But that's insane. I have a young daughter myself, and it makes me vomit to think about these messages going out to young girls, and how perverted it all can get—and it's not even really their fault."
Yet, Cassavetes's most provocative point is the notion of these girls "being responsible for [their] own happiness." However offensive, unnerving, or negatively-associated the circumstances, the distinctive (and novel) factor here is that, in each of these films, girls—young girls—are indisputably running the show, engaging in things that, for ages, have netted male-focused movies legions of fans. In "Violet & Daisy," the gals may answer to a male handler, but they're the ones holding the glocks and determining their own destinies at the end of the day. In "The Bling Ring," while Coppola shows no qualms with rendering her stiletto-wearing subjects as misguided fools, it's they who dominate the raidings of celebs' closets, and Marc, the impressionable one, is essentially relegated to handling logistics (one might even say he's their “bitch”). And though the girls in “Spring Breakers” do, as Rickey says, “use their sexuality as a diversion and a snare,” they don't do anything—sexual, illegal, or otherwise—that isn't entirely in their control, making Korine's hallucinatory work quite possibly the most unlikely feminist film in years.
"For me, I'd rather not speak too much on that kind of thing," Korine said upon the release of the movie, "because I'd rather let the viewers interpret it in a way that's personal or specific to them. But, obviously, these girls transcend anything you've seen other girls do. They transcend anything that the guys in the film do."
Of course, the Lolita and the uninhibited heroine aren't new character types, but to find something comparable to what the gals do in these films, you'd have to dig pretty deep into your cult-movie archives, and even then, you'd be unlikely to find similar titles with leading ladies so young. Katie Aselton, the writer-director-actress who released the female-driven "Black Rock" in May, says she's pleased with the new development, and what it could mean for females charting their own courses on screen.
"I think it's great," Aselton says. "I am so over the mousy librarian trend of girls that was so cool for so long."
In Aselton's film, a horror-thriller that saw her star opposite Kate Bosworth and Lake Bell, and take on a trio of male hunters on an island in a brutal battle of the sexes, there's a lot of gore, profanity, and some female nudity, but virtually all of it seems to be on the women's terms. The characters in the movie (which Bell dubbed "#deliverancewithbitches" on Twitter) are older than those in "Spring Breakers," "Violet & Daisy" and "The Bling Ring," but even they seem to be pushing a certain boundary, taking hits and kicking ass in a primal flick that feels markedly uncommon.
"In a lot of ways, I am obeying the thriller genre," Aselton says. "You gotta have blood, and you gotta have boobs, but whereas I am the one who's making this movie, I'm going to abide by those rules how I see fit, and do it in a way I'm comfortable with. It was very important for me to have three women who aren't afraid to use their big girl voices, or apologize for being sexy, or feel like they're compromising their femininity by being strong. I am so sick of girls apologizing for being strong, or pretty, or whatever. I think [this new trend of films is] great. Do something really different and shock people."
The issue of shock is one that seems inexorably linked to this topic and these films. Cassavetes calls "Spring Breakers"a "missile-blast movie," and says "the participation in something like that, which doesn't follow codes or conform to structures, empowers everyone involved, whether what they're making is politically correct or not." Additionally, Fletcher, in response to the potential of "Violet & Daisy" being viewed as morally reprehensible, says, "Some people find it morally reprehensible when films don't take chances." It's conceivable that the whole trend, however incidental the close proximity of the films' release dates, is indicative of a collective backlash against not just blandness, but oppression. Perhaps the actions of these girls partly reflect an agitation over the presumed role of the young female, and do indeed mark a kind of missile blast, whose wick was lit in the MTV era, whose spark kept burning thanks to factors like Moretz and social media, and whose true explosiveness has yet to be revealed.
"They're movies, not calls to revolution," Rickey says. But with "Spring Breakers" and "The Bling Ring" easily standing as two of the year's most talked-about, who's to say?
"From a narrative perspective, the fact that women are driving these plots is an empowering thing," says Fletcher. "If that gets audiences in to see more films that are genuinely about women, that's a socially and financially empowering thing."
Near the end of "The Bling Ring," when he's being interviewed by a reporter about the robberies, Marc opines that "America has a sick fascination with a Bonnie and Clyde kinda thing." What Marc doesn't say is it may be time for Clyde to move over.