The moment their eyes meet, they despise one another. An empty seat on a bus to summer camp turns into the site of a brawl, prompting hysterics from the surrounding girls. They are natural competitors—one athletic and scrappy, the other rich and aloof, and both with something to prove for they are at an age when every interaction is a chance to show yourself to be either more worldly or more worthy of admiration and terror. We are now entering the world of teenage girlhood where sophistication and cynicism are social currency. In Little Darlings (1980), the dialogue and poses of youth mirror the feigned sophistication of early adolescence, the posturing and one-upmanship of girlhood. Reminiscent of a Judy Blume novel, but with elements of summer camp farce, complete with food fights and a stolen condom machine, the film follows Angel, played by Kristy McNichol, and Ferris, Tatum O’Neal, as they compete to lose their virginity by the end of summer.
From their initial meeting, the bond between Ferris and Angel is one made up of competition, slights, and petty jealousies. It is a relationship charged by animosity. They are adversaries and the girls around them, excited by the rivalry, stoke this animosity. It begins, however, to evolve, ever so slowly, into esteem, respect, and mutual regard. They are the same; their fears, trepidation, joys, and envies are the same. What at first seemed to be the vast difference in their upbringing and personalities doesn’t seem by the end to be such an unbridgeable gap. Their competitive edge is dulled by the realization that being really truly known, seen, and understood by another person far outweighs the temporary credibility either of them could garner from winning the bet.
The poignancy of the film lies in its illustration of the bonds of girlhood, so obsessional, so immediate, convoluted, and melodramatic. These are the formative years when you are able for the first time to see a self differentiated from the bonds of your early life—a solitary self— at the same time that another person becomes a part of you so necessary as to be almost like air. Little Darlings creates this tension, this joyful abandon, this discovery of oneself within the world. Throughout the film, the girls navigate uncharted territory, discovering the contours and complications of the world and, as they grow up, who they are within that newly discovered world. Ostensibly a story about a bet between Ferris and Angel, the film deftly explores the nuances of female friendship, the subtle gradations and moments of enlightenment and trust that make up the basis of a new selfhood and a new deep bond.
As Ferris and Angel compete, the rest of the girls, an incongruous, clique-less group thrown together solely by summer camp, become divided as they vie for the position of confidante, the role of more knowledgeable older sister, counseling Ferris and Angel on how best to seduce the boys they have set their sights on. Of course, it’s all an act. It’s all just formidable teen girl bravado, a smoke-screen of dramatics to hide the vulnerability of youth and the all-consuming desire to be acknowledged and thought of as indispensable in a world of ever-changing enthusiasms. Quoting Shakespeare, claiming that your favorite movie is Last Tango in Paris, even going so far as to say that you’ve gone to the theater many times to see it, it’s all an elaborate act, a series of references that, to the girls, connote essential and yet forbidden knowledge; a kind of cultured, mimicked womanhood. But, in the process of coaching and competing against each other, they bond. This facade of faked sophistication begins to melt away as friendships between all of the girls begin to grow. They are restored to the giggly, mooning, deep introspection of early adolescence. The attempts to replicate what they see as femininity, attempts that have grown out of their obsessions with boys, sex, and their bodies, are left behind. Through their acceptance of themselves and one another, they are able to inhabit the carefree world of girlhood for a little while longer, fending off the adult world in favor of that of dreams and imagination.
When I watch this film, I can’t help but be reminded of the childhood and adolescence that Tatum O’Neal herself never had. By the time she was ten years old, she had starred in, been nominated, and won the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress for her role in Paper Moon (1973), prompting the cruel resentment and retribution of her father, actor Ryan O’Neal. She was subjected to a world of abuse and neglect and forced to take on responsibilities such as the care of younger siblings. She was born into a family plagued by rampant drug addiction and a competitive edge that sometimes took the shape of physical violence. A place lacking in emotional support, Tatum was firmly on her own. She was born to a life that seemed, from the outside, to promise so much, to be a gilt edged dream, but that turned out to be an unending nightmare. She, unlike the girls in the film, was forced to contend with the trials of an adult life while still a child.
I know, of course, in the more reflective, logical part of my brain, that there is no corollary between film and life; that an actor can summon reserves of empathy or emotion that he or she cannot muster or even fathom in real life. That is the beauty and the art of acting. I know this. Really, I do. But when I watch Tatum O’Neal in Little Darlings, when I see her opening up to her peers, when I see her bonding with other girls over camp related mischief, when I see the older coach she’s pining over carefully sending her on her way after she tries to seduce him, I can’t help but hope that it’s happening to the real Tatum, the one so beleaguered and isolated by the trauma inflicted on her by her parents and an exploitative community. I can’t help but feel a sliver of hope as I watch the film that, much as the girls’ sense of self begins to grow alongside the feeling of finally being seen for who they are, something similar may be happening to Tatum. I dream of her finding solace in the ways that Ferris and Angel find solace in that vulnerable time, with each other and within themselves. I imagine that I am seeing some sort of healing happen—that watching the film is offering her the chance at a safer narrative through some kind of impossible alchemy. It’s impractical and it’s absurd, trust me, I know. But, maybe there is something special about this film. Maybe it’s the feeling of hope that what is happening to the girls in the film could also be happening to some small, damaged, and partially forgotten part of ourselves; that it is making clear a formerly hidden piece of ourselves that is also striving for recognition and healing through the bonds we make with others. Maybe it’s reminding me that we cannot and should not be alone. Or maybe it is, after all, just a summer camp movie.