The Art of the Two-Person Dance Party

Donna (Jenny Slate) and Max (Jake Lacey) dance it out in Obvious Child, dir. Gillian Robespierre (2014). A24.

By Tiia Kelly | September 21, 2021

There is something to the language of dancing bodies that cinema has long understood, and viewers have long felt. Zadie Smith knew it when she looked to the beguiling physicality of figures like Gene Kelly, Fred Astaire and the Nicholas brothers for lessons on writing. The horror genre, which has developed its own distinct history of contorted bodies, knows it. This Twitter account, committed to posting daily movie dance scenes, knows it especially. 

But there is something else entirely to cinematic dance moments that are less than aspirational — and, at their most joyous, less than coordinated. These, too, contain a certain language: a character’s amateurish flailing during a Saturday detention dance break is, after all, very different to the spectacle of Channing Tatum’s shiny moves in Step Up or Magic Mike. Less visual marvel, more emotionally driven physical outburst, these scenes explore how the openness of messy physicality can dissolve barriers of inhibition and self-consciousness, enriching the dynamics between characters. 

A vital piece of this distinction is the setting. Rather than dancing onstage, in a studio, or a public-space-turned-performance-site, what happens when these acts of dance occur in closed, domestic spaces? What about vast, isolated landscapes, or the fringes of a group of people? In an enclosed rhythmic bubble, absent of any diegetic audience or company, a character’s dance partner is their audience. 

A dance montage in Gillian Robespierre’s Obvious Child, set to the same Paul Simon song the film is named after, depicts a mating-ritual-like encounter between protagonist Donna (Jenny Slate) and love interest Max (Jake Lacey). Donna has just been dumped by her long-term boyfriend, bombed a performance at her regular comedy club, and drunkenly seduced good-natured Max before taking him home for a one-night stand. Over a shot of the pair kissing, the familiar drums of Simon’s song ring out. The film cuts to Donna in her underwear and Max’s unbuttoned shirt, swinging her head and spinning around. In the background is Max: Donna’s beanie on his head, amusedly playing bongos on a couch. 

The montage is characterised by frenetically assembled bursts of activity. Donna and Max jump around, half-dressed, downing beers. They twist their pelvises, spin each other around and wiggle their shoulders. They make out and mouth Simon’s lyrics to one another. In a particularly heart-melting shot-reverse-shot, Max is shown leaning against a wall, smiling, whilst Donna dances about, trying to make him laugh. The scene’s goofiness, representative of any good ‘dance party’ scene, here becomes a shorthand for the characters embracing comfort in one another’s presence. 

Further, the unambiguous song choice — is Donna the titular obvious child? — emphasises the film’s circulating theme of immaturity; the issue of Donna falling pregnant withMax’s child whilst still being a child in many ways herself. Her desire to precede sex with an almost-juvenile dance party mostly offsets any self-seriousness on her part as a sexual being. However, it also grounds her burgeoning relationship with Max in delightfully silly foreplay, and the childlike playfulness of the sequence is the very thing that solidifies their bond. Sex is funny, and there’s no need for pretence or modesty.

Stylistically, Moonrise Kingdom approaches its own dance sequence quite differently. Director Wes Anderson forgoes Obvious Child’s montage approach for a single handheld long shot, in and out of which the characters move. In the aftermath of sharing their first I-love-you’s, Anderson’s two leads, twelve-year-old Sam (Jared Gilman) and Suzy (Kara Hayward), play a Françoise Hardy record on a remote beach they’ve claimed as their own. Suzy is alone in the frame, bending over a radio to play their song of choice, ‘Le Temps De L’Amour’, literally ‘The Time of Love’. She exits the frame then re-enters, holding Sam’s hand. Suzy sways softly to the music. Sam bobs his head. They move progressively more wildly, with Sam wagging his arms about while Suzy twists her body from side to side. The first cut of the scene brings us to a cosier mid-shot, zooming in as the pair share an endearingly clumsy slow dance. 

Susie (Lara Hayward) and Sam (Jared Gilman) dance together in Moonrise Kingdom, dir. Wes Anderson (2012). Focus Features.

At this point in the film, Sam and Suzy have deserted their respective homes to run away together. Both characters feel alienated from their peers and guardians, and are drawn to one another’s somewhat uncontainable, curious temperaments. One section of Hardy’s lyrics, translating to the time of love / it’s long and it’s short / it lasts forever, one remembers it, stresses an impermanent moment living on through memory. When you’re young, you feel like you’ll be young forever. Though everything for Sam and Suzy feels eternal and vital in the moment, we see only a brief, formative fragment of their lives. The dance scene epitomises this — the characters try desperately to carve out their own independent space, a mini civilisation for the two of them. Yet their bodies give them away: they’re just kids figuring out what their limbs can do, shooting off energy like sparks. 

In both Obvious Child and Moonrise Kingdom’s dance scenes, the freeform dance party is followed by newfound intimacy. In the former, it’s Donna and Max sleeping together for the first time. In the latter, it’s Sam and Suzy, caught up in their newfound ‘freedom’, trying to mimic adult romantic interactions. Whilst slow dancing, they share an innocent French kiss, after which Suzy invites Sam to place a hand on her chest. “I think they’re gonna grow more,” she says. The succession of scenes indicates, almost, a causality: the shedding of unease and lack of posturing in each pair’s dancing facilitates feelings of closeness. The development of both relationships hinges on this willingness to let go in another’s presence; to be less than mysterious — even embarrassing. 

In Greta Gerwig’s Little Women, this trope is transplanted into the period genre, subverting the classic period film ball scene. These moments, traditionally defined by barely concealed yearning and incredibly charged hand touches, are traded for a scene that places characters Jo (Saoirse Ronan) and Laurie (Timotheé Chalamet) on the literal outskirts of this formal atmosphere. After Jo accidentally burns her dress at a party, leaving her unable to dance with the rest of the guests, she meets Laurie, who suggests a solution: the two of them can dance on the porch surrounding the house, where no one may see her scorched frock.

Jo (Saoirse Ronan) and Laurie (Timotheé Chalamet) in Little Women, dir. Greta Gerwig (2019). Sony Pictures.

The scene, accompanied by the jubilant strings of Alexandre Desplat’s score, is washed in warm light from the party inside. Jo and Laurie mimic partner choreography, clasping hands and performing intricate footwork before bumping into one another, laughing. They vacillate between cultivated and raucous, depending on whether they are visible to the partygoers inside, guiding each other in refined steps around the porch before erupting into looser, whole-body thrashing. The two frolic riotously as literal outsiders — forgoing the decorum of Victorian-era courtship to embrace the unrestrained cravings of their youthful bodies. The physicality of this early scene suffuses Jo and Laurie’s subsequent interactions: they are all scrambling energy and play, lightly hitting and hanging off each other. 

In contrast to Obvious Child and Moonrise Kingdom (and despite what Laurie may later come to think), the porch sequence emphasises the platonic camaraderie central to the dance-party trope. Private, spur-of-the-moment dance parties relish in what our bodies long to do when nobody’s looking. One’s dance partner must, then, be a co-conspirator. Jo and Laurie are bonded by their porch dance, both errantly like-minded and overflowing with energy.

In all three movies, the two-person dance party is a direct expression of intimacy, connecting characters through the wildness of their unseen bodies. These moments become indicative of characters’ places in their ongoing development. Maybe they’re playing at adulthood, or outright rejecting it through unsophisticated cavorting. Perhaps they’re moving on the peripheries of propriety or finding romance in youthful romps around the living room. Whatever the case, the dance party is there as the rollicking language of familiarity and tenderness to carry them through. 

Tiia Kelly is a writer and editor from Naarm (Melbourne). Her work can be found in Voiceworks, Scum, Kill Your Darlings and elsewhere. You can find her on Twitter @tiiakel.

The Liminal Space of the Remington Party in Heathers

Veronica Sawyer (Winona Ryder) at the Remington University party in Heathers, dir. Michael Lehmann (1988).

By Sydney Bollinger | September 21, 2021

The world of Heathers (1988) is slightly tilted from our own, often filled with bombastic language and color that reminds viewers it’s not necessarily an realistic portrayal. There’s truth at the core of the film, though, and that truth is that teenagers are cruel, no matter the circumstance. When Heather Chandler (Kim Walker) brings Veronica Sawyer (Winona Ryder) to a party at Remington University, it’s an official invitation not just to be school royalty — but to a lifelong club of “cool” kids. Veronica’s made it, as long as she follows in Heather Chandler’s footsteps. To accept the invitation, though, Veronica has to forgo her adolescence for adulthood.

For Heather Chandler, this Remington party is not just a chance to let loose and have a good time — there’s a mission involved. As Westerburg High’s HBIC, Heather Chandler has a facade of unattainable coolness to maintain, a coolness that keeps her out of reach from her high school peers and hip enough to consort with college boys. Dating a college boy has another benefit, too — it gives Heather a leg up over her peers who will be attending the university with her in the future. She already knows people, she has the lay of the land, she has her in. So for Heather to invite Veronica to the Remington party, she’s letting Veronica into this sacred transition space, a space that Heather has spent time and care crafting to protect and maintain her status with her peers and the college students. 

When the girls arrive at the party, Veronica is immediately introduced to Brad (Kent Stoddard), who sees her more of a party plaything than a person with whom to develop a meaningful relationship. Veronica shows obvious discomfort during this interaction, whereas Heather is all smiles, putting on a performance for David (Larry Cox), the man she came to see. After this brief introduction, Heather and Veronica distance themselves, not just in space, but in actions. Even from Veronica’s introduction to her new man, she acts shy and removed, choosing to look at the ground, projecting discomfort at the situation, as if she doesn’t want to be there at all. Heather continues to play the part of cool girl, knowing that she can’t back down on her performance of confidence, because then she will seem too young. To stay at the party and stay with these people, she has to leave high school behind. 

The Remington party is interspersed with Veronica’s narration as she writes in her diary post-party, unleashing all of her thoughts and frustrations with the fact that she went in the first-place. The diary itself is a hallmark of a teenage girl. She says she wants to kill, unselfishly—her self-reflection on this event is intimately aware of the damage Heather Chandler causes in her wake both to herself and others. Veronica consistently acts as the moral compass of Heathers, both at the party and elsewhere, as if she’s the only person who can see through the play-acting cruelty. Her admittance to wanting to kill Heather when reflecting on the party, is not just a desire to kill the person, but to kill everything Heather stands for, particularly the type of existence that asks to skip the naivety of adolescence. It’s adulthood, with its tantalizing independence, that Heather Chandler craves, so to get it, she subsumes her power to the only person who can help her achieve what she wants — the man at the Remington party. 

Veronica and Heather Chandler (Kim Walker) are at odds. Heather wishes to enter adulthood whereas Veronica chooses to remain in adolesence.

Back at the party, Veronica continues to express disinterest and frustration with Brad, who admittedly just wants to get laid. His behaviour is both immature and demeaning; he implies that Veronica is only there to please him, as if there was some unwritten agreement before the girls arrived. Heather, on the other hand, finds herself alone with David, stuck in a performance in order to maintain her status. Though she shows glimpses of innocence — like when she asks David if they can get back to the party — she ultimately gives into David’s request, performing oral sex, from which she finds no satisfaction. For Heather, it’s a means to an end with lasting mental effects. Following her time with David, she swishes water in her mouth and spits at her own reflection in the mirror. Heather is disgusted by her own actions, but feels she has no choice but to carry on. The conflict between her and Veronica, then, stems from their disparate views on the propriety of maintaining “status”: Veronica doesn’t care, but Heather sees this as all-important. 

In total, the scenes from the Remington party last only a little over four-minutes, but in those four minutes, Veronica and Heather are pitted against each other shot-for-shot. Though not a competition, the editing forces comparison between the two girls, whose reactions to the party are nothing alike. When Veronica and Heather finally meet up again, Veronica vomits on Heather’s shoes, expelling everything that she had to hold in to be accepted at this party. Veronica’s performance, though, does not receive a standing ovation from Heather, who risked her own social capital in bringing a friend. The film ensures that this is clear; Heather Chandler is not in the business of forgiveness. In Heather’s terms, this excursion was a favor to Veronica, a way for Veronica to cement her status as Westerbrook elite. Veronica needed Heather in order to appear more desirable and more adult in the eyes of their peers. In vomiting, Veronica physically rejects the toxicity of the Heathers for something else, able to see through the facade of high school hierarchy.

Outside the party, Heather once again reminds Veronica what she has sacrificed in order to give Veronica popularity: “You were nothing before you met me. You were playing Barbies with Betty Finn. You were a Bluebird. You were a Brownie. You were a Girl Scout Cookie.” While Heather’s intent is vindictive, her insults point out Veronica’s innocence, exposing the ways that Veronica did not fit in at the party, claiming her own adolescence. This assertion on Heather’s part is far from the truth, though, because following the party, Veronica and JD (Christian Slater) play strip croquet and have sex. With Heather’s attempt to remind Veronica of her less-than-cool origins, she focuses on Veronica’s past actions without looking at the person Veronica has become as part of the Heathers. She holds her last shred of power over Veronica and reminds Veronica that she can ruin her reputation by telling the entire school of her Remington party misdeeds. This backfires twofold: Veronica says “Lick it up, baby. Lick it up” in a display of defiance toward Heather and on the following day kills Heather, albeit unintentionally. Heather thinks Veronica carries a reprehensible innocence, but isn’t fully aware of Veronica’s own steps into adulthood; Veronica’s shrouds her coming-of-age from the Heathers and her peers, whereas Heather Chandler wears it on her sleeve. The Remington party, then, is an example of the larger conflict between the two stages of life, which plays out over the course of the film.

Heather thinks Veronica carries a reprehensible innocence, but isn’t fully aware of Veronica’s own steps into adulthood.”

The Remington party, then, is the catalyst for the rest of Heathers, the first domino in a string of killings committed by Veronica and JD (Christan Slater). Veronica has to show up to Heather’s house the next morning to make amends, or she faces the consequences of Heather’s wrath. When she walks through the door of Heather’s house, she absolves herself of the previous night’s philosophical musings. She chooses popularity over being true to herself. JD, though, has other plans. Perhaps the only other person in the film to see beyond the high school facade — though not without his obvious faults — JD lets Veronica revel in adolescence. He has no qualms with her choosing to live the high school experience, as long as it means toppling those who try to hold power. So, he manipulates Veronica into killing her best friend.

Regardless of her decision the night before, Veronica is thrust into a world full of “adult” actions and decisions. She has to navigate dating JD and murder plots disguised as suicide pacts. As the film progresses, Veronica becomes more alienated from herself. Caught up in JD’s antics and contending with the remaining Heathers, she has to “grow up” and resolve a mess she had a hand in creating. At the end, when she seeks friendship with outcast Martha Dunstock (Carrie Lynn) and former friend Betty Finn (Renée Estevez), Veronica reclaims her innocence and adolescence, leaving behind the world of the Heathers for good. This choice provides resolve for the conflict that arose between Veronica and Heather Chandler at the Remington party. In choosing adolescence, Veronica pushes back on a narrative that asks her to give up her formative years in favor of social capital. 

Veronica’s decision to let go of adulthood and be a teenager again is a decision that can only be made with insight and maturity, both of which Veronica demonstrates throughout the film. Though the party was a turning point, it was only a turning point for the dissonance between Heather Chandler and Veronica. Heather Chandler performs adulthood to gain acceptance and status, whereas Veronica knows what she wants and what she doesn’t want — as evidenced by the speech she begins to give Brad. In the end, Veronica excels at occupying the liminal space between the two stages in life; she sees beyond the confines of high school and adulthood performance to arrive at what’s truly meaningful, like her new caring friendships and familial connection.

Sydney is a Charleston-based film writer who focuses on the macabre, the teenage experience, and eco-criticism in film. Connect with her on Twitter @sydboll.

We Were Here: An Ode to the Wannabe Dance in One Tree Hill

Shelley (Elisabeth Harnois), Rachel (Daneel Ackles), Peyton (Hilarie Burton), Hayley (Bethany Joy Lenz), Brooke (Sophia Bush) and Bevin (Bevin Anne Prince) dance to Wannabe at their graduation party in One Tree Hill, 4×21 (2007). The CW.

By Claire White | September 21, 2021

To say the first four seasons of One Tree Hill had an impact on my life is an understatement. Although I was definitely way too young to be watching, the melodramatic lives of the residents of Tree Hill, North Carolina mesmerised me. The show was introduced to me by my older sister and her friends. Coincidentally, one of my sister’s best friends had a younger sister my age, and we instantly became best friends, too. This meant that at some school musical or band rehearsals, we would form one big group of sisters and friends, and talk about the show. Who was our favourite Scott brother (the broody and literary Lucas, played by the Chad Michael Murray, or Bad Boy Tamed Nathan, played by the tall, dark and handsome James Lafferty — both of whom were also star basketballers); whether we were a Brooke (captain of the cheerleading team, fashion designer, hot), a Peyton (brooding tortured artist, reluctant cheerleader, epitome of “music is my life”) or Hayley (aka Tutor Girl, honour student, teen wife); swapping mp3 files of the songs we found on one tree hill music dot com and downloaded off limewire; and quoting our favourite memorable lines (“Alright, are you guys all ready for Fall Down Boy?” / “Fall Out Boy!”). 

When I think about party episodes in teen television — of which there are many — I always come back to One Tree Hill, and the graduation party at the end of season 4. Actually, not the party, but a particular moment of it. Spilling out the doorways and empty window frames of an abandoned two-story brick mansion, complete with large white pillars (honestly, how do party scenes find such large places?), the stone cold classic Wannabe by the Spice Girls starts playing. Immediately, at the sound of the iconic “dun, duh duhn” recognition sets in and one of the cheerleaders, Bevin, jumps into frame, pulling Brooke along with her. Peyton joins in, and everyone around them clears the way as the three start to dance: in formation, and fully choreographed. The three laugh and sing along, as if they are in their own personal music video. Soon, Hayley is pulled in, too. Rachel and Shelley join in, and suddenly all six girls are singing and dancing along to the same choreography like it’s their song, and they are the stars. The crowd around them watches and cheers. It’s a little messy, and full of laughter, but as in sync as they can be. 

“… and suddenly all six girls are singing and dancing along to the same choreography like it’s their song, and they are the stars.”

Whenever moments like this pop up, I always think about the history of it: when did they learn the dance? How long have they been doing it? And though most of them were members of the Tree Hill Ravens cheerleading squad, Shelley wasn’t, so it can’t be a cheerleader thing. All these questions aside, what matters most about this moment is the carefree joy, which is not exactly rare for them, but after the year they had (grief, heartbreak, pregnancy, psycho stalkers), they more than deserve it. There’s also something about the togetherness of it: Shelley’s inclusion is a bit of a wild card as she had disappeared for a while, but beyond that, all jealousies and anger from the past are forgotten. 

The scene is only about a minute long, but it was enough to make an impact, and it’s stuck with me. For a while I didn’t know why, but after all this time I realised it’s because I know how that moment feels. 

My sisters, our friends, and I were no stranger to this feeling of what it means to dance as one, and just have fun with it. When Taylor Swift released her album Fearless (Taylor’s Version) earlier this year, listening to ‘You Belong With Me’ again came with a vivid memory. We had created our own dance to go with the song, and in my mind it was not only the memory of doing the dance moves together, but the feeling that it came with. It’s like being in a secret club, a dance only we knew and got to be a part of. It was laughing along, and feeling like I belonged somewhere, because I knew the moves. It was something we shared together. 

Recently, when I rewatched the episode with the ‘Wannabe’ dance, I was surprised to remember it happened during the season finale. A graduation party always conjures up the same feelings: excitement and anticipation for the future, with some sadness, too, because it is one of the last times everyone will be together in the same way. It is apt then, that this episode is titled ‘All Of a Sudden I Miss Everyone.’

“We Were Here.” One Tree Hill, 4×21 (2007).

Earlier, I mentioned it was the first four seasons of One Tree Hill’s nine season run that impacted my life. This is because eventually, my sister and her friends graduated, my best friend moved schools, and the later seasons weren’t able to capture my attention as they once had. That time in our life was over. But I will always hold the show close to my heart and be grateful for the impact it has had on my life. Starting with my professional interest and love for teen drama’s, and least of all on my music taste, which, as you can imagine, made me insufferable as a teen. I’ll always want to return to these early seasons in an effort to remember what it felt to be that young and together with everyone again. There’s nothing quite like the high school years. 

The episode ends with the Tree Hill teens all standing together on the river court, a basketball court which had become important to them. And as they stand there reflecting on the closing of this chapter, their freshly painted names dry on the pavement surrounding the bold red words: “We Were Here.” The last time my sister and our friends all saw each other was four years ago. The second last time was two years before that. People move apart, you grow up, and once in a lifetime, pandemics happen. It has been a while since I’ve been able to party and dance with my friends. I sometimes worry I’ve forgotten how. And although I no longer remember the moves for all the dances we’ve made over the years, I know it’s not the choreography that made these moments special, but the people I was with, and the memories they make. Once upon a time we danced together. And all of a sudden, I miss everyone.

Claire White is a writer, bookseller and teen film tragic from Naarm (Melbourne), Australia. She is a Co-Founder of Grow Up, a founding member of online film journal Rough Cut, and Greta Gerwig Scholar. You can follow her on Twitter @theclairencew.

Seize the Day, or Rewatching Empire Records in the Age of COVID

Gina (Renée Zellweger) and Corey (Liv Tyler) dance through the workday in Empire Records, dir. Allan Moyle (1995). Warner Bros.

By Mahnaz Dar | September 21, 2021

Almost every piece of media hit differently once COVID started. Watching a crowd of maskless people rock out to “Twist and Shout in” Ferris Bueller’s Day Off made my stomach do an involuntary dip. Meanwhile, characters who extolled the virtues of handwashing, like The Sopranos’ Paulie Walnuts and the title character of Monk, seemed unnervingly prescient. Later, over a year since the pandemic began, one movie moment felt especially resonant: the party scene that concludes Empire Records (1995).

Just as Saturday Night Fever (1977) utterly embodied the ’70s, Empire Records was pure ’90s, from the fashion (tiny plaid skirts, huge baggy jeans) to its grungy, anti-corporate ethos (“Damn the man!” as protagonist Lucas puts it). The film chronicles a day in the lives of the teenage employees of an indie record store. After Lucas (Rory Cochrane) learns that the store will be sold by its owner, Mitch (Ben Bode), to the corporate chain Music Town, he plans to raise the money to buy Empire Records by gambling the day’s earnings on a wager at Atlantic City. When Lucas loses it all, manager Joe (Anthony LaPaglia) has to figure out how to cover for him—and keep his job. Meanwhile, the other workers deal with their own crises, including, but not limited to, a teen shoplifter-turned-shooter, and a visit from washed-up 80s pop singer Rex Manning (Maxwell Caulfield). 

Wouldn’t the protagonists of the film be better served by a few therapy sessions, rather than a roof party?”

Yet by the film’s close, all the characters are dancing on a rooftop to the strains of the Gin Blossoms, their woes seemingly forgotten. Throwing a party and taking donations from hundreds of attendees allowed Joe to raise the capital to buy the store from the odious Mitch. Now, they celebrate. Gina (Renée Zellweger), who earlier confessed a secret desire to become a singer, belts out “Sugar High” (the first stop on a musical trajectory for Zellweger that would include Chicago and Judy). And while Corey (Liv Tyler) shot down A.J. (Johnny Whitworth) a few hours ago when he first declared his love, she now returns his feelings.

Though I’ve been a fan of the movie for years, the conclusion always seemed hastily tacked on. And I’m not alone; critic Roger Ebert called the ending a “mess,” adding, “Why did I hear eerie echoes of ‘Hey, gang! Let’s fix up the old barn and put on a show!’”

To me, it didn’t seem plausible that the characters were so willing to cut loose after everything that went down. True, the store is safe, but throughout their day in the life, the characters have made some disturbing revelations: We learn that perfectionist Corey’s path to Harvard was fueled by an amphetamine addiction; that troubled Debra tried to kill herself the night before; and that the reason Lucas is so driven to save the store is that Joe and Empire Records are all he has, as his own mother had abandoned him years ago. Wouldn’t the protagonists of the film be better served by a few therapy sessions, rather than a roof party?

A year into the pandemic, I revised that opinion. As restaurants and shops shuttered, offices switched to a work from home model, and friends took to Zoom to see one another, I started to fantasize about the day when the pandemic was finally behind us. The restaurant meals would make Gavin Newsom’s French Laundry outing look spartan, the outings with friends would be endless, and the shopping sprees would be decadent. But until that day, there didn’t seem anything worth celebrating; I envisioned myself in a holding pen until the world returned to normal.

That day, of course, never came, and it slowly dawned on me that it never would. And when I once again rewatched Empire Records, I saw the characters not as misguided or naïve, but as brave. Their problems aren’t going to be surmounted in a day; they’re issues that may span lifetimes. But their ability to carve out space for joy, despite knowing that tomorrow may bring just as much sorrow, is stirring.

Gina makes her singing debut on the rooftop of Empire Records, as everyone parties below.

Ebert wasn’t the only critic to trash Empire Records when it was released, and it’s easy to pick apart issues with plot or pacing. But for me the movie, and especially that finale, reverberates more than any other teen party scene, mainly due to its pitch-perfect depiction of raw adolescent emotion. Like a moody teen, the film whipsaws from rage to melancholy to elation — a scene where a frenzied Corey, reeling from a screaming match with Gina, hurls merchandise in a rage, cuts abruptly to a rare moment of bonding between a calmer Corey and a surprisingly nurturing Debra. The finale is just as intoxicating, as the camera seems to be torn about whom to follow: Gina flailing in delight as she makes her singing debut, or Corey trying to catch A.J.’s attention, or Joe and Lucas buying back to the store to the delighted crowd of hippies, stoners, and punks watching it all take place.

The film had a strong effect on me—though not in a literal sense. I didn’t seek out the thriving 2020 underground party scene; I was not about that “Masque of the Red Death” life. Instead, the movie spurred me to seek out moments of happiness whenever I could, whether that meant taking a long walk or splurging on cupcakes just because. The point was that I wasn’t putting off enjoying myself until a far-off date in the future that might never come.
Pop culture often depicts partying as the path of least resistance for the proudly lazy and aimless; think the Beastie Boys’ “(You Gotta) Fight for Your Right (to Party),” or Bluto in Animal House. But in Empire Records, a teenage party becomes a beautifully, desperately courageous act. More than that, it’s a call to action to finally seize the day.

Mahnaz Dar is a New York–based writer and editor who loves revisiting the films of her youth, consuming all things true crime, and finding meaning in Sopranos rewatches. Her work can be found in Library Journal, Screen Slate, and Rewire. You can find her on Twitter @DibblyFresh.

Editors’ Letter: The Turning Point

Rory (Alexis Bledel, right) celebrates her birthday with Lane (Keiko Agena, left) in Gilmore Girls, “Rory’s Birthday Parties”, 1×6 (2000).

By Claire White and Odalis Garcia Gorra | September 21, 2021

As is a common saying at birthdays, Grow Up has made it a year around the sun! So fill up your red solo cup, press play on the hype mix, and start rolling with the homies. We want to thank you all for joining the party. 

When we were building Grow Up, we would be lying if we weren’t slightly worried about creating a website with such a niche focus: would anyone be interested? Does anyone even care about teen film and television as much as we do? And the most horrifying of all, will we get any pitches?! 

Luckily, even before we launched on this day a year ago, the pitches had flooded in and we were able to launch with twelve amazing pieces, ranging from Disney Channel Original Movies to Studio Ghibli, from forgotten gems to modern classics and everything in between! We were blown away from the support, and interest in our passion project. And now, a year on, the pitches keep on coming, and with every email we receive with writers trusting us with their work, and love for our mission, every worry about our niche dissipates. Instead, we are touched, excited to work, and grateful to engage with their stories and share their point of view. At risk of sounding like your high school English teacher (we do love a high school film), it has been so rewarding to work with our contributors, and see them go off to do amazing things. 

We are passionate about youth on screen, and we are passionate about these conversations about how their depictions impact our lives. In our very first Editors Letter for our ‘New Beginnings’ issue, we shared our hopes that this website could “inspire others to revisit their childhood, or be inspired to rethink the critical value of the teen and coming-of-age genres.” If we have inspired you to rethink how you approach these genres, or to write about them, then we are glad.

And here we are, a year on, and we’ve got a lot to celebrate! So, let’s do what the genres we love do best: let’s party. 

One good party can shift everything you understood to be true. What once was is upturned by the possibility of what could be. There is nothing that showcases that possibility more than teen films and TV shows — as audiences we see the exuberance of youthful energy (think: every party in The OC), the letting loose before any real consequences set in, this weird in-between of almost-adulthood but not quite reaching it. One thing is for sure: teens love to party. Herein, you’ll find what makes it interesting for us, the audience, to watch how parties make everything fall apart, fall together, and ultimately (hopefully) make life just a little more fun.

A party can represent a turning point, and drastically change the direction of your life (The Liminal Space of the Remington Party by Sydney Bollinger). Sometimes the best parties aren’t the biggest, or even planned. Just two people dancing together can open up new possibilities, and vulnerabilities (The Art of the Two Person Dance Party by Tiia Kelly). Speaking of dancing, while it might have been a while since some of us have been able to let loose, it is undeniable that parties can leave a lasting impression (We Were Here: An Ode to the ‘Wannabe’ Dance in One Tree Hill by Claire White). All in all, if there’s one thing to take away from the teen film party, it’s that it’s important to remember to still celebrate the little things — even if it’s just that you made it through the day — and party whenever you can (Seize the Day, or Rewatching ‘Empire Records’ in the Age of COVID by Mahnaz Dar).

It is this last point which seems especially important right now. As we continue to grow up and deal with whatever roadblocks life seems to throw at us, we should celebrate whenever — whatever — we can. We have called this issue The Turning Point, not only because launching Grow Up was it’s own turning point, but because we realised that parties, and what we understand constitutes as a party, can be a turning point for all of us.

So bake a cake, get dressed up, pour yourself a drink. Dance with your friends when you can, dance alone in your room just because. Party on. It’s all a part of growing up. 


C + O

Claire & Odalis
Grow Up Co-Founders

On Haircuts and Himbos

Greek himbo feature image
Scott Michael Foster as Captain “Cappie” John Paul Jones in Greek. ABC Family.

by Bailey Herdé | May 31, 2021

It starts with the hair. 

When it comes to Greek, the crown jewel of the network formerly known as ABC Family, there’s really only one head of hair worth mentioning: Cappie’s locks — which sit atop the head of the extremely charming Scott Michael Foster (and you would have to be charming, to rock that cut) — are a marvel that could only belong to the years between 2007 and 2010, a sensational sandy-brown helmet of neat cowlicks and accidentally-on-purpose bedhead. Cappie himself—who remains mononymous until the series finale — is a young-at-heart, self-possessed frat boy, always on the lookout for his next bit of fun between classes at the fictional Cyprus Rhodes University (CRU). Luckily, as president of his equally easy-going fraternity, Kappa Tau Gamma, or KT, and a general-lover of low-stakes mischief, Cappie has fun constantly served up to him on a sticky paper platter: be it forbidden keggers or midday jaunts to the local strip club, he’s crafted an existence in which he can constantly delight in the day-to-day debauchery of fraternity life. 

Impressive haircuts aside, Cappie, of course, is not alone in his love for the uncomplicated elements of collegiate living.For the uninitiated, Greek is a show about the ins and outs of fraternity and sorority life at CRU, where loveable nerd Rusty Cartwright (Jacob Zachar) arrives on campus to begin his freshman year. Rusty, a polymer science major, is very much a fish out of water in this new world of swirling hormones and free-flowing beer taps, but he is determined to make college a place for fitting in. His older sister, Casey (Spencer Grammer) convinces Rusty, mostly out of impatience, that the cure to his dorkiness lies in the wilds of the Greek system. Like the eager-to-learn student he is, he takes her advice enthusiastically, and by twists and turns, he chooses to pledge (join) KT. 

It’s clear from the moment that Rusty sets foot in their house that the KTs are everything the younger Cartwright is not: partiers, slackers, ladies (or men’s!) men. But this is what draws him into the fraternity: the chance to build a better, freer Rusty. The chance to live life easily. The KTs’ greatest appeal, however—to Rusty, and to me—is the roguish Peter Pan wannabe at their helm, the man who happily accepts him with open arms and who—crucially—happens to have a head of hair at the forefront of forehead-disappearing technology.

In middle school, a friend and I made a list of hot people. It began on a piece of loose-leaf notebook paper, but as it grew, we decided it deserved the honor of a serif font. We called it The List. 

There were no limits as to who could be on The List. The criteria were simple: only one of us needed to find our entrant hot; the other simply needed not to be repelled. Notable entrants included: Keanu Reeves (ours; still yes), Tom Felton (hers; no longer), and Chad Michael Murray (mine; only when I watch A Cinderella Story). 

I would like to say that The List was entirely pop-culture focused—and for the most part, it was!—but this was middle school, and I was a passionate congregant at the churches of Meg Cabot and Sarah Dessen and annual rewatches of 10 Things I Hate About You; I believed in the possibility of capital-L Love. So there, among the Heath Ledgers and Brad Pitts and Cole Sprouses (please remember: it was middle school) was one glaring inclusion:

10. The Hair

Now, for The Hair’s sake (and my own; I’m not that brave!) I will not be naming names. But luckily, it’s not the name that matters. 

Unfortunately for all involved, this was the age of the Bieber cut—just before it became synonymous with the Canadian crooner. For some reason, everyone had decided that foreheads were a thing of the past: eyebrows cowered under the Atlassian weight of unkempt bangs; ears were the stuff of rumor, rather than fact; necks lived in fear of each impending style adjustment. But, mercifully, for every twenty coconut-head haircuts shuffling about, there was always one beautiful, perfectly-tousled mane. And at my school, that mane belonged to him

Of course, the face underneath didn’t hurt—but god, that hair! There’s a reason it was on The List: it flowed, it curled, it shone. I dreamed about running my fingers through it and watched (probably not as subtly as I thought), rapt as the object of my affections whipped it around. I was, as the kids say, down bad. 

Maybe it’s an odd thing to say about what was once a nearly-ubiquitous style, but it feels like growing your hair out takes a certain degree of unbothered patience, of contagious live-and-let-live. It takes calm. In middle school, where the hallways were flooded daily with anxiety and self-consciousness, where everything was life and death and devastating in its immediacy, that was important. It felt like under that simple, unembellished hair, there was a person I could have fun with, one who would not take themselves too seriously and who I could trust not to judge. This was a person who maybe didn’t have it all together but who also wasn’t too worried about it—so why should I be? 

When we meet Cappie, he’s slightly drunk, clad in nothing more than a cowboy hat and boxers. His boyish humor is immediately disarming, a heart-warming kind of persistent flirtatiousness you can’t help but smile at. “In my book,” he grins to Rusty’s sister, Casey (who is also his ex-girlfriend), “You gotta respect yourself a lot to walk around showing off the package this early before Christmas.” He’s posturing, of course, in search of the brief satisfaction of ruffling his ex’s feathers, but you can also tell that he’s in on the joke—it’s ridiculous, and he knows it. So what? So is college, and that’s why Cappie thrives at CRU. This is the life he was tailor-made for, as if he sprung from the lip of a red Solo cup, fully formed, right into a keg stand.

Cappie and The Hair

So, yes, Cappie is your stereotypical frat bro, and proudly so; but he’s also the one bro who frequently defies all expectations. He’s cheeky and a little too carefree, sure, but he’s also sweet and considerate: in the show’s second season, he befriends Rusty’s odd, religiously zealous roommate, Dale (Clark Duke)—in part because they’re both drunk and in part because they both hate Casey’s newest boyfriend, Max (Michael Rady)—and afterwards, meets with him frequently for a book club, of all things. “We should be best friends. You know what? We are best friends,” Cappie declares. “Cap ’n’ Dale!” When Rusty struggles to balance the demands of his course load with his pledge activities and worries about fitting in with his fellow KTs, Cappie calmly reassures him: “You belong here.” He then happily takes the extra step of enlisting the entire house’s help to distract Rusty’s physics professor long enough for Rusty to sneakily turn in a late problem set. 

This is the thing about Cappie that draws you in, more so than the charm, more so than the hair: he cares. And, unlike so many men his age — unlike so many men, period — he isn’t afraid to show it. In fact, he can’t help showing it: his face is an open book, honest and kind. Foster’s expertise at letting his emotions show plainly, no matter what, is undeniable. Which is why you know within seconds of meeting him that, despite his protests, despite his jest, Cappie’s still in love with Casey.

Greek is full of moments of yearning—this is college, after all—but no one does it like Cappie. As I am constantly reminding everyone, writer Alanna Bennett once tweeted, “The number one thing a man in a romcom needs, TV or movie, is the ability to look at their love interest REALLY WELL. The man barely even needs to speak if he just knows how [to] LOOK at a person.” And boy, can Cappie look. The instance I think about most is one of the earliest, arguably the strongest and most compelling scenes in a strong and compelling pilot. After Casey discovers that her boyfriend, Evan Chambers (Jake McDorman), has been unfaithful, her Big Sister, Frannie (Tiffany Dupont), suggests that she find some way to “get even” before reconciling with him. She finds solace at a seedy bar, clearly off-campus, and there, she runs into none other than Cappie, who cheekily reminds her that he’s the only reason she knows about it in the first place. They talk a little, then decide to play a friendly game of pool, with stakes: “How about a hundred bucks?” Casey proposes when Cappie asks what she wants her winnings to be. He nods, and she asks him what he wants from her. His eyes light up: “What do you think?” 

Cappie looking at his love interest, Casey Cartwright.

Cappie’s wearing that same shit-eating grin from earlier, like he couldn’t resist asking even though he knows what she’ll say: there’s just no way this girl, who he definitely wants, but who is not single and who—as an organized, peppy, career-driven sorority girl—is on a radically different path than him regardless, would ever say yes to his bawdy request. It’s just that it’s in his bones to take a little risk and have a little fun. But then Casey does something that Cappie, who clearly prides himself on being the unpredictable one, doesn’t expect: she surprises him. She smiles right back, her face a subtle mirror of his own, knowing and confident: “You’re on.” And for once, Cappie let’s the façade drop. He looks at her with such hope, with such unadulterated desire, that you can’t help but hope that Casey, who privately plans for this to be nothing more than rebound sex, changes her mind somewhere along the way. Of course, he quickly builds the wall of humor back up, making an easy joke about giving her a two-ball handicap, but the damage is done. It’s obvious. He’s gone for her. 

It’s now been ten years since the show ended and eleven years since I left middle school. I’ve recently watched Greek again, older and only moderately wiser, still extremely susceptible to Cappie’s charms. And this time around, I’ve finally realized what I saw in The Hair that was so exhilarating: Cappie. 

In reality, Cappie and The Hair had nothing in common, except maybe their shared susceptibility to unfortunate coiffing trends. But isn’t the magic of crushes in the fantasy? Without it, The Hair would not have been nearly as intoxicating. Life could never measure up. (And unfortunately, it didn’t.) Without fantasy, I can now admit that—as much as I relate to his hatred of all things adulthood— Cappie could never make an ideal boyfriend; the Kappa Tau house alone is enough of a dealbreaker for me. What these boys share, however, what I saw in them and loved, was not reality: it was the possibility of something more. I saw a fantastic guy with “fantastic” hair, someone who loved to have fun, who I could rely on for help when I needed it, who wasn’t afraid to care. Someone who could also be gone for me. 

This is a pretty low bar, let’s be real (even Cappie himself doesn’t always live up to it), but as a teen in the throes of an embarrassingly strong crush, this was my ideal. Greek gives you the sense that Cappie has never been anyone but himself, that, to him, unflinching authenticity is as natural as breathing or drinking, and I craved that confidence, in my life and in myself. It was a joy to see it in Cappie, a thrill to imagine it in The Hair. And it was moving to see that, in spite of that confidence, Cappie also has his doubts and insecurities: he and Casey dance around their mutual attraction for seasons in part because of it, and even when they finally get together (a moment!), his love of college, of youth and irresponsibility comes between them. Confidence is compelling, but it’s not consistent, and feeling this in Cappie helped me bring my crush back down to Earth. Don’t get me wrong: I still got heart palpitations every time I saw The Hair. But I could be around him. We talked, we joked. He was a person, just like me, just like Cappie. And, in those many moments when we weren’t together, he was still a damn good crush.

I don’t think about The Hair too much anymore, not least because that definitive cut is very much a thing of the past. But I do think about Greek, and about Cappie. He makes a lasting impression, not only as Casey’s happy-go-lucky himbo, but also as a generous friend and fraternity brother. In his best moments, he’s fantastic, whether he’s accepting the end of a friends-with-benefits relationship with grace or telling Casey that no other girl in the world compares to her. And in his worst moments, he’s simply a person with anxieties and insecurities, flawed but trying nonetheless. Through Cappie all things are possible. And though I can’t say Greek taught me much about college—I went to a school that steered clear of the Greek system entirely—it did teach me about the joys of crushing, of yearning and being yearned for. Cappie and company showed me that, in crushes and in life, it’s okay to let yourself have a little fun. Most importantly, though, I learned that, sometimes, a bad haircut is a good thing. 

Bailey Herdé is an aspiring film critic from Virginia. The time she does not spend watching movies and TV is generally spent, against her better judgement, on Twitter. Her film knowledge, much like her meme folder, is ever-expanding. You can follow her @been_herde.

“Because you saw me when I was invisible”: Clumsy Adolescent Love in ‘The Princess Diaries’

Robert Schwartzman and Anne Hathaway as Michael and Mia in The Princess Diaries, dir. Garry Marshall (2001). Disney.

By Rebecca Rosén | March 2, 2021

Throughout film history, there have been various iconic couples whose fame transcends the films they appear in. Yet some of them, even though they’re loved, are actually questionable in hindsight. Several teen films, for example, romanticise problematic behaviour and unhealthy relationships as something to swoon over, or they imply that you have to change yourself to be worthy of love. 

While growing up, few films portrayed love stories in a way I could get on board with. I guess a big part of it was that the only films within easy access to me were fairy tales where passive princesses waited around for active princes who they often didn’t even know before their “happily ever after” was about to begin. However, the first time I saw The Princess Diaries (2001), I knew I had found something special. The film is a sweet depiction of the trembling first steps you take as you try to navigate your first feelings of love — while simultaneously conveying a message of how important it is to embrace yourself, and find people who accept and love you as you are. 

Based on Meg Cabot’s young adult novel of the same name, The Princess Diaries tells the story of fifteen-year-old Mia (Anne Hathaway) who, during a surprise visit from her estranged grandmother, Clarisse (Julie Andrews), discovers that she’s the sole heir to the throne of a European kingdom called Genovia. Mia must decide whether to claim the throne or renounce her title permanently, but, because she already considers herself to be a “freak,” Mia believes that adding a tiara would only make things worse. She’s like any other teenager; she dreams of surviving high school, as well as experiencing her first kiss (which will preferably be foot-popping good). She’s clumsy, she talks too much, and she can’t seem to find the right words when she needs to. However, there’s one person that secretly thinks nothing but the best of her, and that’s her best friend’s older brother Michael (Robert Schwartzman). 

Robert Schwartzman as Michael Moscovitz. Disney.

Michael is presented as a little dorky, but charming, endearingly shy and a bit mysterious, but never comes across as pushy or intrusive. Throughout the film, it becomes clear that Michael has been in love with Mia for several years. At the beginning of the film, we see Michael practising with his band at the local auto repair shop where he works (playing ‘Blueside’ by Schwartzman’s band, Rooney). Suddenly, Mia rides in on her scooter to check up on her car, and it doesn’t take long until Michael tilts his head slightly to catch a glimpse of her. Like anyone with a crush, he immediately notices when Mia is nearby, way before both the makeover and the princess reveal.

While it feels like Michael’s affection mostly goes unnoticed, it still feels obvious that there’s something between them. Evidence of this can be found in the way he looks at her, in a lovingly and adoring way, and, without thinking twice about it, offering to pick up extra shifts just to help pay off the bill for the repairs on her 1966 Mustang Convertible. When he finally dares to ask her to hang out — right before it’s revealed that Mia is a princess — they both seem nervous, as they’re too scared to have eye contact with each other for too long. Their body language is equally nervous and playful, and they can’t help but bump lightly into each other as they walk side by side. Mia asks if it’s a date and Michael, like a majority of other characters before and after him, smiles and says no even though it seems obvious that that’s what they both want. 

Mia’s Princess transformation. Disney.

As a part of her princess lessons, Mia is required to go through a makeover, to appear more like what people expect a princess to look like. The makeover is a common trope in teen films and they usually exist as a way for characters to either get popular or attract the attention of someone special. While the basis of Mia’s physical change has nothing to do with either of those reasons, the makeover itself still implies a questionable message. As she goes from bushy brows, glasses and curly hair to straight hair, contacts and more visible makeup, it’s important to mention that these changes have less to do with Mia’s actual capability to eventually rule a country and more to do with outdated beauty standards. 

Michael is the first one to see Mia after her transformation, and even though he always found her attractive, he’s speechless. Michael’s reaction is one that makes Mia smile, in both a confident and blushing way. However, Mia’s excitement is quickly put on pause as her best friend Lilly (Heather Matarazzo) disapproves, secretly fearing that Mia is about to abandon her in favour of the popular crowd. As Lilly keeps going with her unsolicited comments, Michael disagrees with her and when Lilly calls Mia’s change weird, Michael emphasises that it’s an “attractive weird.” 

Everyone should be allowed to find what makes them feel confident, and even though the makeover wasn’t Mia’s choice, she finds something she likes without ever making the makeover change all of her. While Mia at first seems unsure about her change (Lilly’s initial comments and some teasing from the popular kids throws her off a little), it feels like she gets more confident as she starts adapting the changes to fit with what she feels comfortable in (for instance, she continues to wear her Dr. Martens and doesn’t always wear a lot of visible makeup). 

While most people have opinions about Mia’s change, the real shift in how people treat her comes after it’s revealed that she’s a princess. Suddenly popular girl Lana (Mandy Moore) lies to the press about being Mia’s best friend, and Mia’s longtime crush Josh (Erik von Detten) starts noticing her. However, neither of them care about Mia’s appearance. Instead, they care about her fame and what they can gain from it. Josh, who has a lifetime supply of hair gel in his locker along with a copy of a magazine called ‘Yachting’ (yeah, he’s that guy), tells newly popular Mia that he hates “phoney publicity-seekers” while inviting her to the upcoming beach party. In the end, it’s clear that the version of Josh Mia had in her imagination was better than the real deal as their date ends terribly: Instead of helping a distressed Mia when the paparazzi show up, Josh decides to kiss her to get his fifteen minutes of fame. 

When Mia cancels her plans with Michael to hang out with Josh at the aforementioned beach party, he’s disappointed. When you’re a teenager you often feel very strongly, like everything is a matter of life or death, no matter how trivial it might be. Therefore, from Michael’s point of view, it doesn’t matter that Mia didn’t do anything wrong when she cancelled: Michael still feels rejected because the cancellation implies that she would rather spend time with Josh instead of with him. When Mia later invites Michael to the Genovian Independence Day Ball, he declines the invitation, as he doesn’t seem to think that it’s sincere. “I really want you to be the one I share it with,” Mia says in vain. It isn’t until Mia sends him an apology pizza with colourful M&M’s spelling out “SORRY” that he decides to reevaluate his decision. While I’m sceptical (at best) when it comes to M&M’s as an acceptable topping, the gesture feels much more meaningful than so many others before it. There’s no pressure, just an apology to hopefully mend things. Additionally, it’s their special thing and, you know, M(ia)&M(ichael). 

A foot-popping kiss. Disney.

In the end, everything comes together beautifully, as Michael surprises Mia at the ball. When they share a private moment, he asks her why she chose him, to which she responds, “Because you saw me when I was invisible.” To have someone who sees you for everything you are is maybe above all affirmation that you’re alive and exist. At the beginning of the film, Mia repetitively felt like she didn’t exist, as people either couldn’t remember her, or weren’t even aware of her presence (“Somebody sat on me again”). Then, after her transformation, people like Josh and Lana only saw her for her status. However, with Michael, makeovers or tiaras are irrelevant; he always liked Mia, even when she didn’t herself. 

In The Princess Diaries, the romance between Mia and Michael isn’t the most important part of the film or Mia’s life, but it’s still always there bubbling underneath the surface. It’s present in revealing body language, facial expressions and longing gazes as a fitting reminder to everyone who ever spent their teenage years pining after someone from a distance. While Mia chooses Michael, she also chooses herself. Despite the royal shenanigans, Mia was still a relatable teenager as she was searching for an identity and purpose. In the end, she’s much more comfortable in her own skin and recognises that she’s capable of doing so much more than she initially thought she was. As Mia and Michael dance together at the ball in a way that’s far from formal, Mia brings her goofy moves into the proper dance halls despite what her previous lessons taught her. It’s a celebratory moment, a reminder of how important it’s to never neglect yourself for someone else’s comfort.

Someone she can be herself with. Disney.

While Michael never appeared in the sequel — he was written off as being busy on tour with his band, which actually was what Schwartzman was doing at the time — we’ll always have the first film. Even though Mia and Michael’s romance is much more innocent in comparison with other teen-oriented films, I enjoy the variety. Besides, isn’t everything leading up to the kiss sometimes just as exciting as the kiss itself? Just remember, in a world filled with Joshes who only notice you when they have something to gain, find a Michael that likes you just as you are with no ulterior motives. Your equivalent of Michael might potentially give you a foot-popping kiss after all.

Rebecca Rosén is a writer from Sweden. She thinks it’s better if you care a little bit too much about what you’re watching than not at all. You can follow her on Twitter @rebeccaroseen.

Finding Your Person: Platonic Soulmates in the Films of Greta Gerwig

Saoirse Ronan and Beanie Feldstein as Lady Bird and Julie in Lady Bird, dir. Greta Gerwig. A24.

By Claire White | February 23, 2021

I may not have seen every episode of Grey’s Anatomy, but I know Cristina Yang and Meredith Grey, and the phrase “you’re my person.A connection so strong that ‘best friend’ doesn’t even cover it. If someone is your person, they are it for you, they were put on this earth for you. Sure, this term can be used by romantic couples, but Cristina Yang and Meredith Grey made it about friendship. Female friendship has been depicted on screen for a long time, but rarely have I seen the deep connection and fulfilment female friendship can provide as the words “you’re my person.”

This intensity of friendship is something I believe Greta Gerwig knows well. Across three of her films as director, screenwriter and star — Frances Ha (Noah Baumbach, 2012), Lady Bird (Gerwig, 2017) and Little Women (Gerwig, 2019)— Gerwig focuses her love and attention on exploring the relationships between young women. In particular, friendships: deep and fulfilling connections that make you wonder if maybe the love of your life might be your best friend.

Similar to Christina and Meredith, in their book, Big Friendship: How We Keep Each Other Close, Aminatou Sow and Ann Friedman find the term ‘best friends’ to describe their years-long friendship too limiting, not meaningful enough. They instead use the term Big Friendship, “because it’s one of the most affirming — and most complicated — relationships that a human life can hold.” They lament the lack of exploration of how friendship can be just as meaningful as a romantic relationship. After all, they are based on the same principles of attraction and connection, and like any long-term relationship, they take work to maintain. The friendships in each of Gerwig’s films go through a stage of break and disconnect. This narrative of bliss – break – reunion is typical of any romantic narrative seen on screen, but like Sow and Friedman’s own relationship, is also typical of friendships. By putting platonic love at the same level as romantic relationships, Gerwig likewise argues the case for the romance of friendship.

Frances Ha, co-written by and starring Gerwig, is a story about Frances (Gerwig), who considers herself only half an adult, still coming of age. As much as she spends the film trying to find her place in the world, it is also a breaking apart of Frances and her best friend Sophie (Mickey Sumners). The film opens with a montage of their friendship. It’s happy, domesticated: scenes of romantic bliss. However, when Sophie moves out of their shared apartment and in with her boyfriend, the two become distant, and descend into hurt, much like a break-up. Frances floats from one living situation to another, mourning the loss of her best friend, describing Sophie moving out as “Sophie dumped me.” However, she continues to exercise devotion, clinging to the memory of the one she loves by continually bringing her up in every conversation (even to people she’s just met): Sophie is “the best person I know,” Sophie is her other half.

Sumners and Gerwig in Frances Ha. IFC Films.

When describing feelings of friendship, one usually uses the term ‘platonic,’ which derives from the philosopher Plato. In his book The Nature of Love, Irving Singer describes Plato’s theory of love as a state outside of sex where there is a “yearning for one’s other half.” He believed that in prehistoric times, humans were split into two, destined to roam the earth forever in search of their soulmate to make them whole again. 

Throughout the separation, Frances not only longs for her best friend, but searches for her place in the world, a chance to feel whole again. Although she dabbles in other friendships and romantic relationships with men on her journey, these relationships are found to be unfulfilling. 

At one point during their time apart, Frances describes what true love is to her:

“It’s that thing when you’re with someone, and you love them and they know it, and they love you and you know it, but it’s a party and you’re both talking to other people, and you’re laughing and shining and you look across the room and catch each other’s eyes, but not because you’re possessive, or it’s precisely sexual, but because that is your person in this life.” 

This definition of love is epitomised in one of the final scenes of the film. At a party after Frances’ debut choreography performance, Frances is talking to her old boss when she looks up across the room, and meets Sophie’s eye. Sophie smiles at her and laughs. Although eventually Frances was able to find the strength and courage to take her career as a dancer into her own hands and produce her own work, with Sophie back in her life she is stronger. Sophie is her person in this life.

The idea of platonic soulmates is something I have been passionate about for a long time. I haven’t dated very much, but I have felt the deep connection between friends, a recognition of myself in them, that makes me wonder “where have you been all my life?” I have no hesitancy to say my friends are the loves of my life, my soulmates, to call a friend my person. This is one of the main reasons why I connect so deeply to Gerwig as a filmmaker. While Frances Ha undoubtedly carries Gerwig’s mark, in her directorial debut, Lady Bird (which she also wrote), she clearly demonstrates how important these ideas of grand romance between friends are to her as a filmmaker.

Lady Bird’s Lady Bird (Saoirse Ronan) and her best friend Julie (Beanie Feldstein), are no doubtedly two halves of the same whole. There is symmetry in the way they dress (matching purple nail polish, backpacks, and friendship bracelets), and they are always by each other’s side for life’s mundane moments (in class, flipping through magazines at the supermarket), as well as the Big ones (homecoming, heartbreak). When they audition for the school musical, they sit so closely together, Julie’s body overlapping Lady Bird’s, it’s like they have merged into one person. 

Julie and Lady Bird, two halves of a whole in Lady Bird. A24.

Best friends are not uncommon in girlhood films, more often than not, these friendships can be toxic (Mean Girls), fatal (Jawbreaker) or center around the pursuit of a boy (most of everything else). To be fair, throughout the narrative of the film, Lady Bird pursues relationships with two boys, sweet Danny (Lucas Hedges) and cool Kyle (Timothée Chalamet), and it is during her pursuit of the latter that Lady Bird and Julie go through their own friend breakup. 

But, the relationship with Kyle was never going to last. Not only once she realised how unfulfilling it was, but also because in order to be a part of his world, she had pretended to be someone else. It is undeniable that Lady Bird (her self-given name) is going through a process of identity formation and transformation into her ideal self, but with Kyle, she is surrounded by people who do not understand her. 

This is best encapsulated the night of senior prom. In the car with Kyle and popular girl Jenna (Odeya Rush), Lady Bird’s dreams are dashed when the popular kids decide to skip prom. Lady Bird’s disappointment is visible, but she concedes. She might have gone through with their plan and lived with this disappointment had ‘Crash Into Me’ by Dave Matthews Band not begun to play on the car radio. It’s the same song that Lady Bird and Julie sang along to while sitting in an empty car, holding hands and crying over Danny earlier in the film, an intimate moment of shared heartbreak. Unlike Kyle, Julie is someone who understands Lady Bird, and feels what she feels. Someone she can feel complete with. 

Instead of a grand declaration of heterosexual romantic bliss, as is typical in the genre, the major romantic reunion in Lady Bird is not between her and a boy, but between Lady Bird and her best friend. Rejecting Kyle’s opinions and declaring she actually wants to go to Prom, when she tells Jenna that Julie is her best friend, it is filled with the same reverence, and sounds a lot like “she’s my person.”

Lady Bird reunites with Julie and takes her to the prom. ‘Crash Into Me’ continues to play as they dance among the other couples on the dance floor, get their pictures taken in the typical prom-couple pose, and cling to each other all night. Their happiness from being together again is palpable. With this reunion, Gerwig once again shows us that romantic moments don’t always have to be sought after with a guy. They can be found with your best friend. 

Frances and Lady Bird both go through a break with their best friends, but it is in reuniting with Sophie and Julie that they are able to become the best versions of themselves, demonstrating how, as Sow and Freidman write, friends “grow in response to each other.” This is equally true of Jo and Laurie in Little Women, albeit their journey is a little different.

Jo and Laurie in Little Women. Sony Pictures.

Even Jo (Ronan) and Laurie’s (Chalamet), friendship represents a wholeness. Not only in the immediate way their energies match as they dance wildly in secret at the ball where they first meet (in a manner most improper, but suiting to them both) but also in the way they share clothes, swapping waistcoats and hats so that in many ways, it is hard to see where Jo ends and Laurie begins. Unfortunately, like Frances and Lady Bird, they also go through their own break, as a result of a rejected proposal, and Laurie escaping, heartbroken, to Europe. During this break, the emptiness Jo feels without her best friend is felt in a letter Jo writes to ultimately accept his proposal, because “the worst fate is to live my life without you in it.” During the time Little Women was set (Civil War-Era America), there were few examples of the way attachments between a man and woman could be expressed, beyond marriage. But, that is not the only way love can manifest. Jo and Laurie eventually reconnect, as Laurie realises the love he feels for Jo is different to the love he feels for her sister Amy (Florence Pugh), who he marries, which he may never have realised if Jo did not stand her ground and refuse his proposal, knowing that marriage is not the way they are meant to love each other.

It is important to have these films such as Frances Ha and Lady Bird focusing on loving-friendships and platonic soulmates, because they offer an example, and recognition, to audiences that Jo and Laurie lacked. Too many times I have witnessed my friends (and myself) in tears over how hard and demeaning dating can be, and it breaks my heart, because being in a romantic relationship shouldn’t be the only way we gain value. 

Often, when I’m with my friends, I sit back and think about how lucky I am to have them, to love them. These beautiful, bright, shining people. It has taken work, but I have never been so happy as when our instant connection is solidified by dancing in a circle, our arms wrapped around each other on the dance floor; passing the mundane hours away by dancing to early-2000’s hits around our bookshop, until we are interrupted by a customer; sending each other flowers; going on dinner-and-a-movie dates; hiding upstairs at a party with a plate of cupcakes between us; or laughing around a dinner table. By consistently bringing attention to these deep and meaningful relationships, Gerwig’s films show us that these close friendships are just as, if not more, important and worthy of attention. We learn that it is possible to find love, romance and fulfillment outside of romantic-sexual love. That no matter what happens, if a person breaks your heart, if you can’t find a date, as long as you have your friends beside you, there is love.

Claire White is a writer, bookseller and teen film tragic from Naarm (Melbourne), Australia. She is a Co-Founder of Grow Up, a founding member of online film journal Rough Cut, and Greta Gerwig Scholar. You can follow her on Twitter @theclairencew.

From Dream Houses to Razzles: An Ode to Matt Flamhaff from ’13 Going on 30′

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Jennifer Garner and Mark Ruffalo as Jenna Rink and Matt Flamhaff in 13 Going on 30 (2004). Columbia Pictures.

by Katherine Clowater | February 23, 2021

You never forget your first rom-com love.

They capture your attention with their witty remarks and dazzling smiles. They win your affections with their romantic gestures and emotional confessions of love. They send your heart aflutter with every stolen glance and longing look. Some people might cite Meg Ryan, Hugh Grant, Julia Roberts, perhaps Heath Ledger, or maybe even Noah Centineo.

When I posed that question to myself, about who my first rom-com love was, one person instantly came to mind. One man graced my television screen when I was a tween and solidified my love for the genre, the actor, and that movie forever. For me, that person is Mark Ruffalo as Matt Flamhaff from the coming-of-age romantic comedy, 13 Going on 30 (2004). This film opened my heart to becoming a hopeless romantic and made me adore Mark Ruffalo when I wasn’t old enough to see any of his thrillers and Marvel movies were still years away. I didn’t know a thing about falling in love but I knew that if I ever did, I wanted to fall for someone like Matt Flamhaff.

Being a kid often comes with the burden of feeling out of place, worried about judgement from peers, and doing or saying ridiculous things just to impress someone. (I know I definitely begged my parents for a cool pair of shoes just because they were the hottest thing on the school playground that week.) So watching 13 Going on 30 for the first time as one of those kids just wanting to fit in and be accepted for who I was, Matt was a beacon of hope amidst that sea of adolescent insecurity and doubt. And what makes him that shining light for me can be found in the ways he expresses his love and what he eventually comes to represent to the protagonist, Jenna Rink (Jennifer Garner). 

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Matt (Sean Marquette) at Jenna’s 13th birthday.

Young Jenna (Christa B. Allen) doesn’t want to be seen as a dorky kid like her best friend Matt (Sean Marquette) who is an aspiring photographer and a lover of non-popular music—things that are sneered at by the popular kids at school. Jenna wants nothing more than to be accepted into this group of cool kids on her way to becoming a trendy and successful woman. More precisely: “thirty, flirty, and thriving.” At her 13th birthday party, young Matt surprises Jenna with the cutest gift: a miniature dream house made of a cardboard box, delicately painted in purple and pink, and featuring small paper cut-outs of Jenna, Matt, Rick Springfield, and more of her favourite things thoughtfully placed in each little room. Matt knows his best friend. He pays attention to what she likes and truly cares about her by putting the time – three weeks! – into this beautiful gift. And to make things even cuter, he sprinkles magic wishing dust on the house that will grant her what is in her heart of hearts so all her dreams would come true.

A little accidental wishing later and Jenna finds herself in her adult body. She’s 30 years old, dating a hunky hockey player, and an editor at a major fashion magazine. Thirty, flirty, and thriving! But she’s still that same teenage girl on the inside with no memory of her life between that birthday party and waking up in her fancy New York City apartment. At the beginning of the film, Jenna is thrilled to be an adult. She can buy all the beautiful clothes she wants, order piña colada (“not virgin”), and there’s not a parent in sight to scold her for swearing! This is how Jenna traverses this film: wide-eyed, romantic, and idealistic, constantly looking for the best in everything and everyone. From her perspective, it’s hard not to see Matt that way too—especially as a kid a little younger than Jenna watching this film for the first time.

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Jenna (Christa B Allen) and Matt sprinkling wishing dust on Jenna’s Dream House.

The first time adult Jenna – and tween me – look at Matt with pure adoration is during one of the film’s best scenes. The magazine Jenna works for is throwing a party to get some good publicity but guests are abandoning the dance floor for the exit door. In a last-ditch effort to save the night from disaster, Jenna – being the pop music savvy 80s teen that she is – breaks out her zombie choreography from Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” music video. When Jenna is on the verge of total embarrassment and all hope seems lost, Matt emerges from the crowd and within seconds he’s on that floor in front of a packed room of strangers dancing by her side. He hasn’t seen Jenna in nearly two decades yet he still jumps in to help her with little hesitation and only mild panic. Matt helps save the party and Jenna’s job in an act so heroic it could rival the actions of a certain green comic book character Ruffalo plays years later.

Jenna’s journey throughout 13 Going on 30 is her realizing that she does not actually want all these superficial and hollow experiences and relationships anymore. Her real dreams are not to fit in and conform to please people she doesn’t know or care about. Instead, she wants to form real connections and achieve a life filled with what makes her happy and loved. To do so, she distances from her former high school bully and current so-called friend and co-worker, Lucy (Judy Greer). And after discovering this adult version of herself doesn’t spend Christmases with her parents anymore, Jenna rushes back to her childhood home to mend things with them. And while she makes these realizations, she also gravitates toward Matt.

Upon seeing Matt as an adult for the first time, Jenna remarks that he looks incredibly different externally – and he does – but as the film progresses she learns that he is still unabashedly himself on the inside. At Jenna’s birthday party back in the 80s, he flails his arms around to “Burning Down the House” by Talking Heads surrounded by the popular kids without a care in the world. When he bumps into Jenna on the street as adults, Matt is sporting a Talking Heads shirt—his devotion to the band holding strong. In both his childhood bedroom and his apartment, his walls are adorned with Taxi Driver (1976) and Blue Velvet (1986) posters, displaying his constant and unwavering love for movies as he’s grown up. He also continues to pursue photography and even makes it into a profession. Nothing, not even the glares and eye-rolling of judgmental teenagers, could put a damper on his love for these things. He sticks to his passions and interests regardless of what others think. Matt personifies the very idea of being true to oneself. As Jenna falls in love with Matt, she’s beginning to fall in love with these same values in herself. 

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The Iconic 13 Going on 30 “Thriller” dance scene.

Before Jenna’s birthday party, young Matt pulls out a package of his and Jenna’s favourite candy, Razzles. Jenna hesitates, claiming the chewy treat is just for kids to which Matt replies, “Exactly,” as he hands one to her. Later, as they’ve become close again as adults, Jenna insists on tracking down Razzles at the nearest corner store much to the surprise and delight of Matt. Sharing candy may not be as grand or obvious a gesture as shouting up to someone’s balcony or orchestrating a surprise serenade on the school soccer field, but it is a declaration of love between them. For him to share it with her when they’re kids is to tell her he loves her and just wants her to be happy as her true, authentic self. For her to share it with him as an adult is not only self-acceptance for Jenna but an acceptance of Matt’s love, and a silent reciprocation of it too. 

With the dream house in her hands once again as an adult, Jenna makes a wish, the magic dust swirls, and she’s back to being teenage Jenna. She’s truly herself now. This time, however, she makes the choices that are actually in her heart of hearts: not trying to impress the popular kids but instead embracing Matt (with a kiss and metaphorically). By embracing him, she chooses a life in which she has the love she desires (in Matt as well as her parents) and gets to wholly enjoy the things that make her happy, not tossing them aside to appease others. She gets the purple and pink dream house, the lovely Matt, and even the Razzles, happy and unconcerned with what anyone thinks.

It’s no wonder I became a hopeless romantic after seeing 13 Going on 30 as a kid. To find a best friend to share everything with, who will support you and encourage you to be your most authentic and real self, who, in turn, you can also be supportive of and make happier too? To find someone who would risk embarrassing themselves to save you from public humiliation? What a dream. That’s why I love Matty and why he shall forever have a place in my heart as a rom-com crush. It’s not just because he’s a cool photographer who likes movies and happens to also be Mark Ruffalo. Matt Flamhaff makes me believe I can find someone to share Razzles with too.

Katherine Clowater is a writer from Canada. She recently graduated with a BA in English and hopes to write professionally. She devotes her free time to reading books, watching movies, and over-analyzing Star Wars. You can find her on Twitter @_katclo.

‘The Hunger Games’ and Compulsory Heterosexuality

Katniss (Jennifer Lawrence) and Peeta (Josh Hutcherson) performing their romance on live television in The Hunger Games, dir. Gary Ross, 2012. Lionsgate.

By Jo Reid | February 18, 2021

“He made me look weak.”

“He made you look desirable.” 

— Katniss Everdeen and Haymitch Abernathy, The Hunger Games

It’s been nine years since The Hunger Games (2012) was released, kicking off the love triangle dominated dystopian YA adaption craze that ruled the 2010s. The Hunger Games and its sequels, Catching Fire and Mockingjay Part One and Two, remain the strongest of the trend, using its premise of the televised child death-match to explore how media and violence intertwine to uphold oppressive regimes. While its sharp politics have been celebrated, its love triangle – where no-nonsense revolutionary heroine Katniss Everdeen (Jennifer Lawrence) struggles to choose between childhood friend Gale Hawthorn (Liam Hemsworth) and fellow Hunger Games contestant Peeta Mellark (Josh Hutcherson) – has been much derided. Neither boy are distinct enough to be memorable, and unlike the intensely emotional and romantic love rivals of The Twilight Saga’s Jacob (Taylor Lautner) and Edward (Robert Pattinson), Katniss doesn’t seem that conflicted over where her true feelings lie; she doesn’t seem to care about romance at all.

Rewatching The Hunger Games as a queer adult, I was struck by how Katniss’ apathetic and confused relationship to romance parallels that of young queer women like myself, figuring out their own sexuality. Compulsory heterosexuality is the political and social institution that expects and encourages the formation of heterosexual relationships. First defined by Adrienne Rich in her 1980 essay ‘Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence’, this concept is particularly influential among young lesbians today who relate to the experience of being encouraged to be interested in, and form romantic attachments to men, regardless of whether they are truly attracted to them. Navigating romantic feelings is complicated and difficult, as it is tough to discover where the line is drawn between being attracted to men, or to the idea of being attracted to men. This distinction is fluid and constantly shifting, particularly in a homophobic society where heterosexuality is presented as normal, natural, and desirable. Performing heterosexuality, unconsciously or not, is often a method of survival. 

Katniss kisses Peeta during The Hunger Games to receive medicine. Lionsgate.

While Peeta and Katniss’ relationship is developed throughout The Hunger Games series, it is never clear what Katniss feels. Peeta is clearly and sincerely in love with her, but Katniss only shows explicit romantic attraction when on camera. She is thrust into the star-crossed lovers storyline by Peeta’s public confession of love, but must keep up this pretence during the games to please the Capitol audience. The first time she outwardly shows romantic affection to Peeta is when she needs medicine, and so she kisses him. The gentle chime of a parachute signals her reward. Performing romantic love is established as a necessary tool for survival. 

Katniss’ relationship with childhood friend Gale, is also ambiguous. She may love and care about Gale platonically, but whether she romantically loves him is unclear. Throughout, she utilises romantic displays of affection to make Gale feel better, rather than to express her own desires. In Catching Fire, Gale is publicly whipped by Capitol Peacekeepers and is comforted by Katniss. After she kisses him while healing his wounds, he bluntly states “I knew you’d do that […] I’m in pain. That’s the only way I can get your attention.” Like with Peeta, she shows romantic affection as a reward, or out of pity. 

The Capitol is an oppressive, all-encompassing system that is always monitoring its citizens. It is imperative Katniss performs her romantic attraction to Peeta believably, and any deviation could mean her death, and that of her family. In Catching Fire, even private moments are still caught on camera; President Snow threatens Katniss after witnessing a friendly kiss between Katniss and Gale on a surveillance camera. By showing video evidence to Katniss of her transgression and forcing her to continue the charade of being in love with Peeta, the implication is we are always watching you. We control you. Therefore, it is in all aspects of existence, not just when she is on screen, that Katniss must perform this heterosexual romance. 

Katniss and childhood friend Gale (Liam Hemsworth). Lionsgate.

The Capitol’s surveillance state also demonstrates the blurred lines between genuine affection and performative romance. Katniss is unable to sort through her true feelings in private, without the threat of exposure dangling over her head. Like the Capitol, in a homophobic, heteronormative society, you always feel like you are being watched. 

Growing up queer, I felt an expectation to appear straight. At sleepovers, when I asked “who do I have a crush on,” I would choose the first boy I could think of. I dated the only guy who was interested in me for over a year and was secretly relieved when he eventually dumped me. When alone, I refused to fantasise or admit the possibility that I could have a romantically fulfilling relationship with a girl. I felt like it was important to conform, and it took a lot of self reflection to work out exactly why I was so afraid of letting the mask slip. Unlike Katniss, deviation may not have meant death, but the threat of exposure still hung over my head, scaring me away from seriously considering my own sexuality. Whether the threat was imagined or not, it felt like the cameras were always on.

By Mockingjay, Katniss has transitioned from childhood to adulthood while performing for more powerful forces than herself, denied agency or time to truly reflect on, or digest, her own experiences or feelings. It is an adolescence marked by outward performance, where being in love is another costume she must put on to make her palatable, relatable and inspiring. 

Compulsory heterosexuality governs everyone’s lives, regardless of their sexuality. Katniss may be queer – certainly fans have noticed this, and many have seen her as a lesbian or asexual – or she may not be, but she is governed by forces beyond her control. The Capitol forces her into a heterosexual relationship and asks her to perform it willingly under pain of death. It does not matter what her true feelings are, what matters is how she appears, whether she can convince the world that she is happy and in love. The Hunger Games is constantly aware of the power of the camera, and frames Katniss’ moments of affection in an ambiguous light, unsure of whether her true feelings are genuine love or acts of survival. 

In the end, Katniss is, finally free. She lives her life with Peeta, raising their children together while forever haunted by her past. The emotional scars may never heal, and Katniss may never fully process her true desires. But, in Mockingjay Part 2’s epilogue, she is settled, living a peaceful, heteronormative life with Peeta, but he is blurred and out of focus. Again, there is ambiguity as to whether she is satisfied with her life, or if she clings to Peeta as the only stable, consistent thing left in a transformed world. There is a melancholy air, suggesting that Katniss could never be truly happy, but perhaps this will do.

In a way, it doesn’t matter, as she has no choice. Katniss is a child, groomed by The Capitol and threatened with punishment if she deviates or fails to perform her role adequately. How can Katniss decipher her true feelings when they have been governed and shaped all her life to act as tools to keep her alive? 

Jo Reid is a Scottish writer from Glasgow. Recently graduated with a Masters in Film, Exhibition and Curation, you can find her obsessing over cheesy, tacky, and camp children’s films from the 00s on Twitter @_jomreid.