All I Wanna Do (review)
You Go, Girl
It’s a crime and a shame that you probably won’t have the chance to see All I Wanna Do until it hits video. Why can’t you see this movie? Because Hollywood doesn’t think there’s a market for films about teenage girls that doesn’t feature them as sex toys for teenaged boys or — more frequently — for men old enough to be their fathers. It’s a crime, because while the industry celebrates — as it did last night at the Oscars — yet another movie about a man’s midlife crisis, which prominently revolves around his lust for a young girl, it refuses to tell stories from that girl’s point of view. And it’s a shame, because every young girl (and boy) should see this film.
In the fall of 1963, Odette Sinclair (Gaby Hoffmann: Volcano) is being shipped off to “the end of the world”: Miss Goddard’s School for Girls in small-town Connecticut. Her new classmates instantly dub her “Odious,” proving that boys do not have a corner on nastiness — and a tour of the school by the pseudofascist monitor Abby (Rachael Leigh Cook) gives Odie all the more reason to despair. But she soon befriends her roommates, Verena Von Stefan (Kirsten Dunst: Small Soldiers, Wag the Dog) and Tinka Parker (Monica Keena: Snow White: A Tale of Terror, Devil’s Advocate), and is welcomed into their secret society, the D.A.R. The Daughters of the American Ravioli — so named for the cold ravioli they eat right from the can in their hidden clubhouse — have plans for themselves other than marriage: Verena wants to be a magazine publisher, Momo Haines (Merritt Wever) a scientist, Tweety Goldberg (Heather Matarazzo: Scream 3, 54) a psychiatrist.
Tinka’s greatest ambition is to be a famous entertainer and slut, and all Odie wants at the moment is to lose her virginity to her boyfriend, Dennis (Matthew Lawrence: Plains, Trains and Automobiles). And that’s the really refreshing thing about All I Wanna Do: it doesn’t offer the desexualizing of girls as the antidote for the objectification we’re typically offered onscreen. Instead, it recognizes girls as sexual beings in their own right, not as appendages to boys or men or unthinking targets of male desire — these girls have their own desires, and their own agendas. Sexual independence is an uphill battle, though — Odie’s banishment to Miss Goddard’s is, in fact, parental punishment for being caught in a compromising situation with Dennis, and the Goddard girls are constantly on the alert against the advances of the lecherous history teacher, Mr. Dewey (Robert Bockstael).
But the real threat comes when the financially strapped school proposes a merger with the all-boys St. Ambrose. Verena, whose brain is “swift and uncluttered” because it is not clouded by sex and not enthralled to the (hee hee) “hairy bird,” fears that Goddard’s girls will turn into “simpering, fawning wretches” if boys are around all the time. (In one frighteningly prescient scene, the school’s headmistress — Miss McVane [Lynn Redgrave: Gods and Monsters, Tom Jones], who is vehemently opposed to the merger — finds herself having to make nice with the male representative from Ambrose, stifling her opinions and being the “good girl” so as not to endanger the merger.) Verena rallies the D.A.R. with their rallying cry — “No more little white gloves!” — and they concoct a plan to foil the alliance.
In a world that allowed girls’ stories to be heard, All I Wanna Do would perhaps not feel quite as extraordinary. This cheerful and uplifting coming-of-age story — written and directed by Sarah Kernochan — covers some ground that we’ve seen before… from boys’ points of view. The film is reminiscent at times of Dead Poets Society, and some might even be tempted to call this Dead Poets Society for Girls. And that’s part of the problem. No one would dare call Dead Poets Society a “boys’ movie” — stories about men and boys are considered of universal interest, with appeal for women and well as men. But women’s stories are not accorded the same respect, and the result is that entertainment aimed at women is often insipid and inane (see anything on Lifetime or Oxygen) and, frankly, not worth watching by either gender.
But All I Wanna Do is smart and fun. It depicts its female characters as clever and creative, intelligent and high-spirited… as well as insecure and uncertain. In short, the girls of All I Wanna Do are fully human, which unfortunately is not something we get to see often onscreen. And there’s no reason why teenaged boys won’t get as much out of this film as teenaged girls will. If nothing else, they’ll learn that girls are people, too.
Miss McVane says, at one point in the movie, that male teachers consider girls’ schools “the bottom of the barrel,” which seems to be exactly what Hollywood executives think of “girls’ movies.” The same forces at work in the movie — the relegation of women to second-class citizens — are precisely what is keeping the film from getting the general release it deserves. Redeemable Features, the production company that is releasing All I Wanna Do into a single theater in Manhattan with an ad-hoc, guerrilla marketing campaign behind it, calls this venture “a grand (perhaps foolhardy) experiment.” I call it a highly commendable venture.