Young actors confronting teenage sexuality on the big screen has often led to emotionally honest and powerful work. Think Adèle Exarchopoulos in “Blue is the Warmest Color,” Jess Weixler in “Teeth,” Bel Powley in “The Diary of a Teenage Girl” or Harris Dickinson in the upcoming Sundance winner “Beach Rats.” But if there’s one actor cornering the market on teenage sexuality right now and showing everyone else how it’s done, it’s Elle Fanning.
The 19-year-old indie darling has become increasingly interested in characters coming to terms with their burgeoning sexuality, and she’s owning every one of them with refined and intuitive work. It’s particularly impressive that Fanning has never tackled the subject the same way from performance to performance. She’s constantly exploring all facets of teenage sexuality, whether it’s as an active participant or reactionary observer.
Fanning’s work over the last several years has given cinema some of its most honest portrayals of the coming-of-age experience, and it has set Fanning up for even more bold work as she enters her twenties. Let’s appreciate her fearlessness when it comes to teenage sexuality in the great performances below.
“Ginger & Rosa”
Sally Potter’s powerful coming-of-age drama is dominated by what is arguably Fanning’s most overlooked work to date. She plays Ginger opposite Alice Englert’s Rosa, two 17-year-old girls whose lifelong friendship is devastated by Rosa’s affair with Ginger’s father. While Englert’s storyline is more overtly sexual in nature, Fanning’s affords her the opportunity to tackle sexuality in a more subversive fashion. Ginger’s mother plans for her daughter to become a housewife, but Ginger takes up interest in an anti-nuclear movement. Her fear of the end of the world takes her to the brink of sanity, and the dramatic power of Fanning’s work is how she manages to build the connective tissue between Ginger’s paranoia and her severe discomfort over Rosa’s sexual relationship with her father. Rosa’s burgeoning sexuality cripples Ginger’s mental health like a harmful symbiotic relationship, and it’s Fanning who makes this abundantly clear in a way that Potter’s script only hints at.
“Ginger & Rosa” is proof that Fanning doesn’t necessarily have to be the one blatantly dealing with sexuality in order to successfully explore it. Her work here is reactionary, but its power comes from how Fanning wrestles with Ginger’s psyche in the wake of Rosa’s sexuality.
“20th Century Women”
Part of what makes Mike Mills’ screenplay for “20th Century Women” such a rousing success is the way it introduces characters that seem like archetypes only to give them depth in surprisingly real ways. Fanning’s Julie is the girl next door, the object of our protagonist Jamie’s desires, but it becomes clear the actress and Mills are interested in demystifying the holy symbol of teenage sexual desire. Julie chainsmokes and talks about sex as a defense mechanism against her own inability to connect with others. Her fraught relationship with her therapist mother is instigating her rebellious side, but Fanning doesn’t so much lash out as she does lash in.
Every action Julie takes to act out has an internal emotional reasoning that helps make the character feel so real. Her inability to connect with others outside of sex allows Fanning to tap into a coming-of-age confusion that’s so relatable it hurts. That Julie has managed to create an honest emotional bond with Jamie is what keeps her from sleeping with him, and that’s where Fanning succeeds in making Julie feel less like an archetype and more like the existentially-plagued teenager we all once were.
16-year-old aspiring model Jess moves to Los Angeles in hopes of starting a career. But is she really the young innocent that her doll-like looks and saintly personality lead everyone to believe? Or is there something darker bubbling underneath the service? It’s the way Fanning toys with answering this question for much of “The Neon Demon” that makes the movie so enticingly wicked.
The beauty-obsessed world Nicolas Winding Refn drops Jess into wants to sexualize and corrupt her at every turn, but Fanning’s interpretation of the character is that she could be those things already. When her competition presses her about her sex life, Jess recoils and plays up her purity, even though the dark twinkle behind Fanning’s eyes suggests a less wholesome truth. Refn is ultimately making a statement on the way beauty destroys the mindsets of young women, but Fanning isn’t content with just playing victim. Her character stimulates rage, obsession and/or sexual passion in everyone she meets, and Fanning acts as if Jess could be a willing participant. Multiple viewings prove Jess is as much the corrupter as she is the corrupted, which makes for a more fascinating study of coming-of-age sexuality than the movie first introduces.
Fanning is back in theaters this summer with another role in which she takes on teenage sexuality head first. Sofia Coppola’s “The Beguiled” stars Fanning as Alicia, a bored schoolgirl whose sexual curiosity is heightened by the arrival of Colin Farrell’s wounded Union soldier. Like the other women at her boarding school, Alicia uses the solider as an escape from the tedium of her life, and such an escape for a young teenager like Alicia can only be provided through flirtatious behavior.
Fanning creates a playful sexual attraction between Farrell and herself, but she’s smart enough as a performer to make Jess’ attraction feel less like a sexual awakening and more as a provocative distraction. Alicia enjoys being provocative as a means of removing her from her mundane, cut off existence. Her life is more exciting when she’s playing with the sexual dynamics between herself and Farrell’s character, and it allows Fanning to make Alicia a more perceptive character than just the young temptress. It’s a more refined study of teenage sexuality than you might expect.
“How to Talk to Girls At Parties”
Later this year, A24 will release yet another Elle Fanning performance built on themes of teenage sexuality. John Cameron Mitchell’s “How to Talk to Girls at Parties” is adapted from the Neil Gaiman short story and stars Fanning as Zan, an alien at war with her species who gets discovered and taken in by a punk-loving teen. Their burgeoning relationship injects some humanity into Zan’s robotic veins, and Fanning has a complete blast dissecting a classic teenage archetype: the sheltered young girl who gets caught up in a sexual and social revolution.
The smartest thing about the movie is how Fanning creates a layer of self-awareness around her alien’s human discoveries, prompting “How to Talk to Girls” to be a smart subversion of the coming-of-age teen flick.
“The Beguiled” expands nationwide this Friday. “How to Talk to Girls at Parties” will be released sometime this fall.