It was hard to select just one Jane Campion movie for this series. Though the New Zealand-born filmmaker may not fully identify with feminism as a guiding doctrine, she is nonetheless a champion of female media producers. Furthermore, her commitment to positioning women and girls as her subjects and prioritizing their relationships with one another is to be commended. I could have selected 1989’s Sweetie, Campion’s first feature to get an international theatrical release and introduced the hypnotic aesthetic Campion cultivated in film school to a mass audience. Apart from its lauded performances, complex eroticism, and curious status as the last movie Kurt Cobain watched, The Piano has tremendous historical value. Campion remains one of the few women to garner an Oscar for Best Original Screenplay and is the second of four women to be nominated for Best Director.
Campion’s filmography is defined by an attention to evocative fictional characters and noteworthy figures like Janet Frame and Fanny Brawne. When she doesn’t pen her own scripts, she collaborates with screenwriters like Laura Jones. Campion also employs girl actresses and regards them and the characters they are playing as peers or people with desires and contradictory impulses independent of yet contemporaneous to adult women. This is evident in Anna Paquin’s mesmerizing turn as Flora McGrath in The Piano, a role that established her as the second youngest Best Supporting Actress Oscar recipient. But this portrayal is hardly exceptional in the context of the director’s oeuvre. Campion helped facilitate accomplished work from Karen Fergusson and Alexia Keough in An Angel at My Table and Edie Martin in Bright Star.
In Two Friends, leads Emma Coles and Kris Bidenko deliver nuanced, ingenuous performances as polar opposites Louise and Kelly. The movie documents the dissolution of their childhood friendship following Louise’s acceptance into an elite girls’ academy that Kelly’s stepfather refuses to let her attend. I chose 1986’s Two Friends for a few reasons. Its status as an Australian TV movie is exceptional, though it screened at the Cannes Film Festival as well. Helen Garner’s script unfolds in reverse chronology. Though she only wrote a few screenplays, Garner has since enjoyed a long career in her native Australia as a novelist and journalist. Finally, as a follow-up to Campion’s breakthrough short film, A Girl’s Own Story, Two Friends is one of Campion’s few films to foreground the fragile nature of adolescence and female homosocial bonding. Typical of her output, it does so with nary a hint of condescension.
The timeline should hardly be interpreted as a barrier. Everything we need to know as viewers is revealed in the first fifteen minutes. Starting in July, Louise’s divorced parents attend a funeral for a peer of their daughter’s. Though we never see her, it is inferred that she ran away from home and took her own life. Louise’s mother Janet voices concern for Kelly, now a vagrant who was once a fixture in her home before a fallout with her daughter the previous February. Kelly encloses her whereabouts to Louise in a bit of correspondence she hopes will extend an olive branch. She is squatting in a flat with some kids, has a boyfriend, and is on welfare. Louise scans the letter before attempting to distract herself with piano scales. Kelly’s voiceover bleeds into the action, thus giving both girls equal consideration. Following that is an account of the girls’ engagements from the previous fall. Strained interactions indicate the pair’s possible separation but overall they are amicable. The movie ends with both girls getting into the prestigious school.
I wonder how much of an influence Two Friends had on the development of My So-Called Life. Louise recalls protagonist Angela Chase, depicted as a teenager of such relative means that her angst emphasizes her privilege and sheltered upbringing. Louise has little understanding of Kelly’s unstable home life, absentee father, and the difficulties of negotiating sexually available adult men as a teenage girl. She thus exhibits little patience for her friend’s need to seem older and appear desirable to men, perhaps conceptualizing her own sexuality as underdeveloped by comparison. Kelly bears resemblance to Rayanne Graff, sharing a flamboyant wardrobe that announces her working-class origins and exhibiting self-destructive tendencies. Kelly and Rayanne also demonstrate intelligence and creative potential that is in danger of being squandered by their recklessness, but neither girl is vilified or pathologized for their behavior. Thus, I am unconvinced that Kelly’s gutterpunk existence presumes a tragic ending. Kelly’s stepfather makes the fateful decision for his charge not to attend a monied girls’ school for reasons that seem altruistic but also suggest embedded class insecurities that obfuscate his stepdaughter’s personal and educational needs. But Kelly’s resultant truancy may allow her to develop a self-sufficiency and autonomy that Louise cannot learn in school.
Furthermore, Louise and Kelly’s discussions about shared past experiences, classmates, school, parents, fashion, music, sex, boys, and the racism displayed in Gone With the Wind share the giddy candor of conversations between the teen girl characters on My So-Called Life’s. These conversations take place in similar domestic environments, transpiring in bedrooms and over telephone conversations monitored by parents. Both texts also consider overlooked younger girl siblings who surprise their older counterparts with their insights. They also connect female characters across generations and class backgrounds with great poignancy. Finally, the queer potential of Kelly’s feelings for Louise rival Rayanne’s love for Angela. It is revealed in exchanges and letters to her friend that Louise is a guiding force in on Kelly’s life. Though Kelly passed the qualifying exam that afforded her entrance into Louise’s school, the scholastic and social opportunities have nothing to do with why she wants to attend. She wants to emulate Louise, but she also wants to be with her.
Two Girls is a remarkable early feature from one of contemporary cinema’s most assured directors. Campion continues to realize multifaceted, complicated women and girl characters. Those efforts makes this contribution and the work that followed it an essential addition to the Bechdel Test Canon.