Mooney Pottie puts sparkles on her science-class diagrams of fallopian tubes, which isn’t the only reason that everyone in the small Nova Scotia town of New Waterford regards her as a bit mental. A wildly imaginative 15-year-old, Mooney lopes around town with her face in a book and her long-limbed body wrapped in thick oversized sweaters and ankle-length skirts. As played by newcomer Liane Balaban, whose dark-haired pre-Raphaelite beauty could stop traffic in Nolita, she looks like a Brontë or Yeats heroine—those are clearly her role models despite her talent for foul-mouthed repartee. Mooney is determined to get out of New Waterford, and when her parents forbid her to accept a scholarship to an art school in New York, she comes up with a plan of escape that’s “devious, sinful, and inspired.”
Directed by Allan Moyle, who showed his affinity for creative, eccentric kids in the underrated Pump Up the Volume and Empire Records and for the chemistry between teenage girls in Times Square, New Waterford Girl is a tender and hilarious vision of female adolescence. The script by Tricia Fish, based on her memories of growing up in New Waterford during the ’70s, privileges Mooney’s point of view. She’s alienated from her family and schoolmates, all of whom regard her as a freak, but her desire to leave is tinged with ambivalence. New Waterford may be a one-street town, but the Nova Scotia coast has a rough, romantic beauty, and the closer Mooney comes to getting out, the more she feels the pull of the place. Moyle shows us Nova Scotia through Mooney’s eyes—a gray sky softly edged with pink at sunset, a brilliantly blue wooden house, a brick alley where pimply boys grope girls they’ve known since childhood and sometimes get them pregnant.
In too many recent movies, when girls bond, murder and mayhem soon follow. But when Lou Benzoa (Tara Spencer-Nairn) and Mooney Pottie get together, they bring out the best in each other. Lou and her mother (Cathy Moriarty) have moved from the Bronx to hide out until, as Lou puts it, “the stink wears off.” The stink has something to do with Lou’s boxer father, who taught her a move or two before he was sent to jail. Lou is as extroverted and impulsive as Mooney is defensive and introspective. The two of them ride around in Lou’s beat-up convertible, and Mooney starts to live in the here and now, instead of escaping into her head. If Mooney is looking for a way out, Lou is trying to learn the rules and adapt to life in a small Irish Catholic town, where just a mention of the blessed Virgin is enough to make potential sinners stop dead in their tracks. The local girls peg Lou as a “fuckin’ Toronto lesbo bitch” (they can’t imagine that she’s come from as far away as New York), but she wins them over by using her fists to punish their two-timing boyfriends.
Balaban is a remarkably concentrated actor with a mercurial intelligence, a quick tongue, and an ability to communicate what’s left unsaid. New Waterford Girl is her film, but in their scenes together, Spencer-Nairn is fully her match. Moyle has a gift for putting young actors at ease, and he also gets subtle comic performances from Mary Walsh and Nicolas Campbell as Mooney’s parents and Andrew McCarthy as the teacher who nurtures her talent and is also madly in love with her. Just before they go their separate ways, he grabs Mooney and kisses her. By then, there’s probably no one in the audience who isn’t longing to do the same.
A more conventional coming-of-age comedy, Amy Heckerling’s Loser is slighter than her groundbreaking Fast Times at Ridgemont High or her deft Jane Austen update, Clueless. Still, it’s the most progressive, good-hearted studio film of the summer.
The setting is an undisguised NYU, where brainy but decidedly uncool Paul Tannek (Jason Biggs) is having a hard time fitting in. Tortured by his rich, bratty roommates and terrified of falling behind in his studies and losing his scholarship, Paul takes refuge in the only off-campus housing he can afford—the back room of an East Village animal hospital. The sole bright spot in his life is Dora Diamond (Mena Suvari), who seems to like him, if only as a friend. Dora, who dresses in gothic grunge, works full-time as a waitress in a topless bar to put herself through college. Paul saves Dora when she OD’s on roofies, fed to her by those same horrible roommates, who can’t score unless the girl’s unconscious. But Dora’s having an affair with their pompous lit-crit professor (Greg Kinnear), who tells her that she’s his soul mate and treats her like shit.
Heckerling is at her most subtle in showing how Dora slowly falls in love with Paul while remaining obsessed with the exploitative professor. There’s a definitive moment when Dora sees Paul shirtless and is surprised and knocked out by his beautifully muscled torso. When he catches her looking at him, Paul quickly slips his Sarah McLachlan T-shirt over his head, as if to counter the impression that he’s a sexy guy.
Heckerling went to NYU about 30 years ago, and throughout the film you can sense her looking askance at the current generation of students. There’s a bigger gap between the good guys (Paul and Dora) and the bad guys (pretty much everyone else in the movie) than in Fast Times at Ridgemont High. Sean Penn’s stoned surfer wasn’t mean, and even the ticket scalper who betrays his best friend had a conscience. But in Loser, New York (which looks as clean and bright as the Beverly Center) is overrun with users and abusers, all with grandiose senses of entitlement. Loser‘s spot-on depiction of its villains would have made for a depressing movie if it weren’t so funny to see them get their comeuppance.
If you prefer a more confrontational female sensibility, Jennifer Reeder is presenting about half a dozen videos ranging from her early “Clit-o-matic White Trash Girl” series to the recent, unexpectedly lyrical Lullaby. In the Clit-o-matic episodes, Reeder picked up where Vivienne Dick left off in her punk collaborations with Lydia Lunch. White Trash Girl, who was flushed down the toilet right after she was born and thrived on sludge, becomes a turbo-charged defender of working girls and the enemy of bikers, bartenders, and men in general. In these early pieces, Reeder was more concerned with outrage than with form, but her voice-over narratives had a pulp energy that made up for the careless imagery. Lullaby is a big step in another direction. Reeder edits together images of preteen ballet dancers and high school cheerleaders, clips from Madonna’s “Lucky Star” video, and excerpts from a 12-year-old’s diary (perhaps her own) to evoke, with great poignancy, the desires and anxieties of girlhood.