***While Little Darlings is still unavailable on disc, Turner Classic Movies is screening the film tonight! More information can be found here.***
Truth be told, growing up on the seventies and eighties, I always thought there was something incredibly special about Tatum O’Neal. What kid and teenager back in the day wasn’t overwhelmed by her first in Paper Moon (1973) and then especially in the original and only The Bad News Bears (1976). She was remarkable…a spirited and sad spoiled little rich girl that you just knew would be your friend if you could ever be lucky enough to get close to her.
Tatum was 16 when she shot 1980’s Little Darlings, a wonderful little film in which she co-stars with Kristy McNichol, Armand Assante and Matt Dillon. Tatum had hit a dry spell after Nickelodeon (1976), International Velvet (1978) and Circle Of Two (1980) had failed to capture the public’s eye in the same way her earlier acclaimed and award-winning work had. Looking back on it today, Little Darlings is indeed the pivotal film in O’Neal’s career and its failure to find its audience pretty much ended her justified bid at adult stardom.
Little Darlings started out life as a coming of age story by co-screenwriter Kini Peck. Peck, who used some of her own memories of the hardships of being a teenage girl, was paired with TV writer Darlene Love by Paramount pictures in 1978 to flesh out her story into a full blown screenplay. The two would come up with an endearing work that would take the rather audacious step of centering a serious film on teenage sexuality with a near all female cast to portray it. Little Darlings, and its storyline centering on a group of teenage girls at camp betting on who can lose their virginity first, could have been a pandering and leering film (one can only shudder what the American Pie generation would have done to it) but instead the two female writers deliver an uncommonly good and sincere film filled with more heart and emotion than most films on teenage life can barely touch.
A big part of the credit to Little Darlings success must go to director Ronald F. Maxwell, a less than prolific filmmaker who is probably best known for Gods and Generals (2003). Maxwell’s subtle and un-showy style suits the coming of age story very well and Little Darlings is never less than expertly handled through his lens for its all too brief running time.
Joining Tatuam and the rather impressive cast I mentioned above is a young Cynthia Nixon, from future Sex and The City fame, as well as Krista Errickson who would find some success in film and television in the eighties and early nineties. Everyone in the rather large ensemble cast, made up of girls ranging from ten to sixteen or so, are completely believable and Maxwell is a smart enough of a director to give a nice democracy of framing so the film never feels one-sided or less the sum of its parts.
The males in the film are basically just represented by the camp councilor that O’Neal falls for, played very well by the very handsome Assante and the local street kid that captures McNichol’s heart, the always excellent Matt Dillon seen here at the dawn of what has turned out to be one of the great modern careers. With the exception of a couple of other minor characters that is it for any male figures. Little Darlings is a defiantly female driven picture and, as such, it feels almost completely foreign to the typical male dominated gaze of the traditional teenage movie.
I must admit that watching the film all of these years later, I was most affected by McNichol’s very moving and heartfelt performance here. She was nominated for an Young Artist Award here and her work really shows someone that should have been given more attention at the time. She is particularly good in her scenes with Dillon where she is able to essay the rather hopelessly awkward feelings of young love perfectly.
The soundtrack of the film is also a key component (and is ironically part of what is keeping it off DVD) and features some expertly placed performances by Blondie, John Lennon and Rickie Lee Jones. The incidental music in the film is expertly handled by Academy Award nominee Charles Fox, who was coming off one of his most exceptional scores with 1978’s Foul Play.
The film falters a bit in some moments that venture over into a more ‘cutesy’ side, mostly involving the youngest girls in the camp. It is also way too short, as it ends in a rather cookie cutter manor just past the ninety minute mark, as if the studio suddenly lost their guts in looking to deliver an authentic and honest portrayal of young female sexuality and friendship.
Still, the film has a lot more going for it rather than against and it is a real shame that it didn’t perform better when it was released in 1980 to mixed reviews and a just okay performance at the box office. Rated R, mostly for language and some suggestive content, the film was butchered for television release later and many of the best songs were removed from the home video version. The film has, to my knowledge, never appeared on DVD anywhere.
Paramount never really knew what to do with the film and the poster and promotional material suggest an exploitation comedy along the lines of Porkys much more than the sensitive and serious film it actually is. Roger Ebert didn’t much care for the film but he did point out rather intelligently that Little Darlings, “earns the right to its subject matter - even though the movie's advertisements….unashamedly exploit the subject matter.” I agree and it is very unfortunate.
So what of Tatum O’Neal, the troubling figure who brought me to the film in the first place. She is quite amazing in it actually. While not on par with her performances in Paper Moon and The Bad News Bears, her work in Little Darlings shows the young woman who should have become one of the key figures in modern cinema but, unfortunately, her own personal demons stopped that from happening.
Still, I must admit, even after twenty five years of disappointing career choices, tabloid headlines, reality TV and two tragic tell-all books, I still find Tatum O’Neal as special as the first time I saw her nearly three decades ago. Little Darlings is a neat little capper to a remarkable trilogy of films that saw her capturing the imagination and hearts of a lot of young people in this country…myself included. Time or any other mistakes, on hers or our part, can’t take that away.