My mom had the original girl crush on Hayley Mills
. As a result I've seen every Hayley Mills movie ever, including The Parent Trap 4
. I also own many of these movies and re-watch them on an embarrassing basis. One which I do not own, but recently found on Netflix Instant (and, clearly, immediately sat down to watch), is The Trouble With Angels
The movie goes something like this: two teenage girls (Hayley Mills and June Harding) consistently wreak havoc on a Catholic boarding school, much to the consternation and consistent punishment of Mother Superior (the incomparable Rosalind Russell). There's a cameo by Gypsy Rose Lee, scandalous band uniforms and tears at the end for anyone whose heart is not made of stone.
Upon my re-watch, however, I discovered something extraordinary about this movie that, in my youth, I never noticed: there are 5 credited male characters in a cast of 37. Only one of these men has more than two lines and one scene. They are, in no particular order: a headmaster of another school, an absentee uncle, a one-line father, a uniform supplier and a train attendant. The entire movie, a teen movie (or to use the pejorative a chick-flick) is actually about women.
See, most chick-flicks aren't about women at all. They are about men: meeting a man, catching a man, losing a man, and in the end either sleeping with, marrying, or moving in with a man. Don't get me wrong, I love a good romantic comedy, but these movies aren't about women. They aren't about female friendships or learning how to be a girl in a given situation or growing up. No, these movies are generally about romance and incredibly attractive people.
But here, in the Trouble with Angels
, a totally different kind of story is afoot. The two central female characters are Mary (Mills) and Rachel (Harding). Mary's the constant purveyor of "Scathingly Brilliant Ideas." These ideas include, but are not limited to: plastering a girl's face shut, giving a tour of the nun's cloisters, replacing bubble bath with the nun's sugar, and ditching a school field trip in the big city to explore. Mary and Rachel also get in trouble for things like setting off fire alarms and smoking in the girls' room. I'm not saying these girls aren't pulling these pranks as a means to test boundaries. The main point of all of the shenanigans that these two get into is to demonstrate the bond they form throughout their school days.
How many movies do girls get like that, about friendship and growing up? I can think of one other off the top of my head: Now and Then
. I'll give you Little Women
if you're the kind of kid who doesn't mind projecting herself two centuries back. How many movies do boys get like that? The Goonies
, The Sandlot
, Stand By Me
, Boyz n the Hood
, Dead Poets Society
, School Ties
, American Graffiti
, The History Boys
' I'll stop, but I could go on.
And how many other teen movies about a group of girls have absolutely zero romance? How many teen movies for girls center around bonding with one another through smoking together in the bathroom or setting off fire alarms, in which these same girls are not painted as irreparably damaged human beings? In short, how many teen movies have central female characters acting like teenagers: screwing up, having fun, and trying desperately to assert their adulthood? I've just got this one: The Trouble with Angels
Look, I'm not saying this movie's perfect. It's from the mid-'60s, and there's a lot of ideas on gender in there that I can't say I totally get behind. But Rachel, Harding's character, is terrible with everything feminine, including sewing, art and general good grace. Yes, her general female ineptitudes create running gags throughout the movie, but she graduates without being saved, transformed or beautified by anyone. She grows up into herself, not into someone who magically learns to sew, cook and dance like a perfect lady.
There's also the beautiful subplot about Mary, Mills's character, finding her faith. The filmmakers handle this without resorting to preaching or heavy-handed religiosity. Instead, we get a character on film understanding and coming to terms with her faith in the vein of Are You there God? It's me, Margaret.
Maybe it's because The Trouble with Angels
was directed by a woman, written by another and based on a book written by a third. Maybe it's the nearly-all female cast. But I feel so blessed to have had a movie grown up about forming female bonds, growing into a different person than your closest girlhood friend, and learning to handle that transition, despite the awkwardness and pain. And I hope that young and teenage girls don't have to wait another 40 or 50 years to get a similar movie.