Sundance Review: Alli Haapasalo’s ‘Girl Picture’ is a frank and funny look at the power of female friendship [Grade: B+]
The need to be seen and how the pressure of society affects how you behave and color yourself is ever-present in Girl Picture. The script tells a simple coming-of-age story amongst three young women. Mimmi (Aamu Milonoff) and Rönkkö (Eleonoora Kauhanen) are best friends who run a food court smoothie kiosk, sharing stories and being upfront with each other about their frustrations regarding love and sex. Emma (Linnea Leino), on the other hand, gave up her adolescence, in favor of becoming a professional figure skater. These experiences and stories begin as separate plot threads, and in a similar vein as watching a hyperlink film, we begin to anticipate the moment these characters collide.
Mimmi and Emma exchange a glance or two at the mall, and a misunderstanding instantly creates friction between them. But friction leads to a spark, and it’s only further ignited when the two of them meet again at a party. Rönkkö, on the other hand, is frustrated that she has yet to have a sexual experience that is enjoyable. Told over the course of three Friday nights, Girl Picture hops back and forth between these two main narratives – Mimmi and Emma falling in love with each other, and Rönkkö trying to find the right man to help her find pleasure in sex.
Though the script deals with familiar elements like coming of age and first love, screenwriters Daniela Hakulinen and Ilona Ahti write with a rare sense of openness to their topics. The back and forth dialogue between Mimmi and Rönkkö is to-the-point and humorously explicit. Certainly it’s the kind of conversation any parent would be shocked to hear. But having it all in the open makes for an honest and sincere exploration of femininity, queerness, and vulnerability for characters who are too old to be girls but still too young to be women.
Director Alli Haapasalo shoots her three leads by prioritizing their faces over anything else. Every scene involving Rönkkö and a young man ensures the audience that the scenes are less about the explicitness of the sexual acts, but always about how she is feeling at that moment. The camera lingers uninterrupted on her face, always allowing us the intimate access to see if she is okay. Haapasalo’s truthful direction does wonders in elevating this script, because even on paper, this story treats its female characters with a sense of safety and well-being. Never once are we afraid if a man would do something awful, making us fear for Rönkkö’s safety. There’s no antagonist out to separate Mimmi and Emma from each other. Instead, the film creates a safe space for these characters to make their own messy decisions and confront and learn from their mistakes on their own terms. It’s a wonderful, refreshing way to tell a coming-of-age story.
A self-contained script and Haapasalo’s empathetic storytelling approach allows all three actors to shine as Mimmi, Emma, and Rönkkö. Not only do they share terrific chemistry with each other during moments of dialogue, but all three are capable of revealing so much of their characters’ insecurities through their facial expressions. Milonoff and Leino, in particular, are dynamite on screen, as Mimmi and Emma eventually overcome their first hurdle in their relationship, where Mimmi begins to question if Emma’s love for her is real or if she’s just being used. The script offers just enough backstory to these characters for us to understand their motivations and doubts.
Another beautiful stunt is how the film captures Mimmi and Rönkkö’s friendship. Despite the film spending almost its entire runtime separating the two of them into parallel narratives, they still manage to find one another again, their smoothie kiosk almost representing a literal safe space for them to come back to. Though the second act can still feel a bit meandering, the organic back-and-forth editing and the thematic core of love, pleasure, and friendship paints a delicate portrait of young female adulthood.
There is a moment early on in the first act of Girl Picture, where Emma explains to Mimmi what competitive figure skating looks like. She describes how every second is a performance, how every second she will be watched and judged by a panel of judges. Not only is this the moment where Mimmi falls in love with Emma, but it is also where Girl Picture hits home on its ideas: that we are all in need of love, but we are also fragile beings who are shaped by the people around us and how they see us. Guided by three terrific performances, earnest direction, and a soundtrack full of vibrant songs, Girl Picture is a familiar but proud, open, and truthful story that we need to see more of.
This review is from the 2022 Sundance Festival where Girl Picture won the World Cinema Dramatic Audience Award.
Photo courtesy of Sundance Institute | Ilkka Saastamoinen