Fraught with emotion and discovery, teenage years overflow with stories and narrative potential. No wonder, then, that the coming of age story is something of a favourite with filmmakers and audiences alike: it’s a genre in its own right. And, even if it re-treads familiar ground, the possibilities for a different perspective and something new to say are limitless.
Such is the case with Girl Picture, which opened this year’s BFI Flare and also won the World Cinema Dramatic Audience Award at Sundance. It’s not hard to see why the festival goers warmed to it. This spirited look at three Finnish girls discovering the difference between love and sex has an appealing energy. Mimmi (Aamu Milonoff) and Ronkko (Elonoora Kauhanen) are friends at school and work together in a smoothie parlour in a local mall. Mimmi’s dismissive of her friend’s longing to find that elusive instant attraction, but throws her opinions to the wind when ice skater Emma (Linnea Leino) buys a drink from her. Sparks fly and what is a first love for both of them is intense and volatile, threatening Emma’s skating ambitions and throwing Mimmi into turmoil. At the same time, Ronkko’s search for that bolt-from-the-blue moment leads her to discover something less spectacular, but more substantial.
Taking place over three successive Fridays – teenagers pack a lot into a short space of time – it’s propelled along by an energetic and sharp script, creating three striking and memorable characters. It’s not quite an ensemble piece: even though the film looks at each of their individual stories, Mimmi is at the centre, the crucial link that brings Ronkko and Emma into the narrative, even though the two hardly know each other. Initially, she’s a difficult character to like, prone to outbursts of temper and even punching a fellow member of the hockey team. But underneath is a teenager still coming to terms with her parents’ separation and the feeling that her mother’s preoccupation with her new husband and son has sidelined her. The moment when she arrives for her little stepbrother’s birthday celebration, only to discover her mother forgot she was coming, is a gut punch – for her and the audience. And that feeling of rejection makes her relationship with Emma all the more important.
The emotional intensity co-exists happily with Mimmi and Ronkko’s banter in the smoothie bar, where they giggle over the appropriately suggestive – or should that be fruity? – names given to all the drinks. What the customers would think of their other, more explicit conversations, is another matter but it adds to the portrait of both girls and makes the audience feel they’re being taken into the girls’ confidence. Emma, on the other hand, is a more serious proposition. So far her life has been dedicated to the rigours of competitive ice skating – the training, the practice, the strict discipline – and her feelings for Mimmi throw her into a new and frightening world, one where she feels she has to choose between sport and love.
Whether or not you believe in love at first sight, it’s hard not to be captivated by this vibrant, sensitively observed film with three sparkling performances at its heart. The territory may feel familiar, but the approach is fresh and honest, full of experiences and emotions that everybody will recognise.
Drama | Cert: tbc | Vertigo Releasing | BFI Flare on 16 and 17 March. UK cinemas later in 2022 | Dir. Alli Haapasalo | Aamu Milonoff, Elonoora Kauhanen, Linnea Leino.