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).