Nostalgia Reality Check: 1979 Coming-of-Age Classic, LITTLE DARLINGS

Girl-centric summer camp classic "Little Darlings" was a movie I held religiously close to my heart as a preteen, but how would it look to an almost 39-year-old?
Publish date:
February 7, 2012
friends, sexuality, teens, crushes, Kristy McNichol, peer pressure, summer camp, Tatum O'Neal, Sex,

There are two specific classic teen girl coming-of-age movies I’ve always felt preternaturally attached to, “Foxes” with Cherie Curie and Jodie Foster and “Little Darlings” starring Tatum O’Neal and Kristy McNichol.

Originally hitting theaters in 1979 and 1980 made them ripe for my predominantly unsupervised early-80s obsessive cable television consumption, as well as steady rotation into the local channel 11 weekend afternoon and occasional late-night movie roster. I loved both movies deeply and still believe if you tossed those four young performers (probably just their characters) in a blender, you’d pour out a me. Formative. Influential.

“Little Darlings,” in contrast to “Foxes” was never released on DVD and became the less revisited, more elusive of the two films. For me, dog. Basically meaning that my reaction to “Foxes” has fluidly grown as I have, making me less aware of it’s first impact on a tween me, while “Little Darlings”was protected in a time capsule of my virginal 10-year-old brain.

Turner Classic Movies had a pretty amazing “Underground” series on Friday nights at 2am (they may still have it, but recently started 31 Days of Oscar, so it may be on hold) and a couple weeks ago gave me the opportunity to re-experience “Little Darlings” at probably 25 years older than the last time I caught it. Heavy.

IMDb’s plot synopsis is as good as any: “Two 15-year old girls from different sides of the tracks compete to see who will be first to lose their virginity while at camp.”

As a kid, I had a major crush on Tatum O’Neal. I developed a pre-K superstar complex, saw “Paper Moon” and take my word, kindergarteners either wanted to be her, or be next to her for storytime. I listed her in my xoJane bio as my first celeb crush, then got a little red-cheeked realizing Jane is friends with her.

My memories of “Little Darlings” were colored by this Tatum-love. She played Ferris (I have to imagine even the 35-year-olds among you are baffled that her character was named “Ferris”), the one from the rich girl side of the tracks, the one who was worldly and sophisticated beyond her years and had the forethought to go after a grown man for her side of the virginity bet. Her clothes looked expensive and she had manners and big crazy poetically romantic ideas.

As a 38-year-old rewatching, Ferris (like everyone at camp) was so young. Her airs are a put-on, a child’s defense mechanisms formed of the life-shaking uncertainty of her parents divorcing and her mother abandoning her. She connects the least with her fellow campers, a daddy’s girl who when separated from her daddy goes after a grown camp counselor (hunky Armand Assante, whom I’ve always projected some French citizenship onto and was shocked moments ago to learn he’s an Irish-Italian New Yorker) who thankfully has boundaries against a Romeo-and-Juliet-jabbering 15-year-old.

Kristy McNichol as “Angel” (love it) originally struck me as the cool tough tomboy, the delinquent. The loner. I liked her but didn’t invest a ton in the character as a kid. Boy, do I now know why.

Angel was from the slutty-single-mom-having side of the tracks. That’s not a judgment, that’s the portrayal. Based on personal experience, I think a young girl develops a complicated relationship with sex when she is confronted with her mother’s sexuality in a context wholly different from old school “TV moms.” Perhaps the perceived shift in priorities makes you feel alone and unprotected and sexuality becomes a threat that you use self-destructively and without emotion. Maybe.

Keep in mind, this was a summer camp movie, a girl-centric “Meatballs” to me mostly as youngster. And it has those elements. The supporting cast is filled with really brilliant young actors, including a super-charming flower child Sunshine, played spectacularly by a teen Cynthia Nixon (this viewing was definitely my first “WOW, that’s Cynthia Nixon?!” opportunity with this film).

Back to Angel. Her spiteful participation in the virginity bet (the bloated-ego’d “engaged” catalog model amongst the campers offers up her $100 royalty check from the Tiny Tangles Cream Rinse commercial up as a prize) comes from just wanting to appear normal. Ferris wants to be liked, Angel wants to be normal. Ferris ultimately lies about hooking up with Gary the Couselor, Angel lies by denying making good on the bet with her identical twin Matt Dillon due to the resulting overwhelming and verbalized “loneliness.”*I have to throw in here somewhere that it would be almost impossible to make a movie today that spoke openly of 15-year-olds persuing sex. And it for sure couldn't be packaged as a movie for young people and be shown as a Saturday Afternoon movie on local network television. "American Pie" were graduating seniors.

Angel wasn’t ready. She got ahead of herself (I wasn’t ready for sex at 15, I thought I was). Angel’s kind of feral and lacking guidance and learned that while sex and men may be her mother’s driving force, that just wasn’t the answer for her right now or maybe ever.

Through the modern-day lens of Kristy McNichol’s recent coming out (even though her sexual orientation had been a long-time open secret), I wondered if I wasn’t imagining or projecting some “celluloid closeting” on her struggling character in “Little Darlings.” Her performance is just beyond. Come to think of it, the opening challenge that leads to "the bet" has The Model overtly questioning Angel's preference.

Ferris and Angel eventually get vulnerably honest with each other and these enemies-and-competitors-at-first-sight bond in a way they undoubtedly had not with anyone else before this point. Friends talking. Not-a-girls, yet not-a-womans. This is where the love story is for me.

In conclusion, I’m not above admitting I may have just wanted them to kiss. Then and now.