Little Darlings (1980): A Camp with Virgins & No Slasher?

When I was a young girl going to camp, oh wait, I’m not a young girl and I have already established I didn’t go to camp. Let me try this again. When I was a thirty something guy sitting on his couch preparing to watch a movie about young girls at camp, I wasn’t sure what to expect. The film’s two young stars were both names I recognized, but I wasn’t sure if I was in for the female version of Meatballs or something more akin to an Afterschool Special. Surprisingly it was neither, and a bit of both. The film in question is Little Darlings, a movie I had heard about, but it was long out of print and never released on DVD. I finally recorded the flick when it played on TCM a few weeks back, and heads up, it’s playing again next Saturday (6/23/12, 2:15 AM) if this review inspires you to want to check it out. I could easily now write something titillating about the film’s man conceit, a race between two girls to lose their virginity, but Little Darlings isn’t crass. It tries to paint a picture of the secret life of teen and pre-teen girls, and, at least in this old guy’s opinion, it works.

Angel (Kristy McNichol) is from the wrong side of the tracks. She might be a young girl, but she’s got an adult size chip on her shoulder and a cigarette constantly hanging from her mouth. Ferris (Tatum O’Neal) is a rich girl who doesn’t feel like she fits in and whose parents are in the middle of a divorce. When they meet on the bus to camp, the two girls instantly clash. This sets up Cinder (Krista Errickson), the star of a national ad campaign who is more developed than the other girls, to challenge Angel and Ferris to a contest to lose their virginity. Angel becomes infatuated with Randy (Matt Dillon), a boy from the camp across the lake, and they flirt heavily as they get closer to actually doing the deed. Meanwhile, Ferris has Romeo and Juliette on the mind, and her star crossed beau is camp counselor Gary (Armand Assante). However, sex, and each other, might not be what they expected.

Obviously, I didn’t grow up as a girl in the 80s, but my wife did, and I found it fascinating that she remembered being shown Little Darlings as a kind of warning about the dangers of sex. In that way, it shares something with the aforementioned Afterschool Specials and even classic exploitation fare like the 1917 silent sex scare film Enlighten Thy Daughter and 1967’s more sensational Teenage Mother. To say that Little Darlings is preaching a morality would be going too far, but it does seem to yearn to guide women down a certain path. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. Compared to how modern teen movies (Ahem, Twilight.) treat sex, Little Darlings is practically chaste. The girls interact realistically, and the film plays out without feeling forced, something that most message movies can’t seem to avoid. The credit for this comes from both sides of the camera.

Little Darlings was directed by Ronald F. Maxwell, and this was his leap from TV to the big screen. He would later take a drastic career turn by following up a TV movie sequel of The Parent Trap by tackling the Civil War in a pair of films, Gettysburg and Gods and Generals. Maxwell gave the material room to breathe, and the entire film was shot well. I can only imagine he had great respect for the script penned by Kimi Peck and Darlene Young. Peck, who was the daughter-in-law of Gregory Peck, is credited with the screenplay, along with Young, and the original story, but this is her sole film credit. Young, on the other hand, was a prolific television movie screenwriter who seemed to take a special focus on dealing with women’s issues in film. Looking over her filmography, it’s easy to see where her attention lay with films like the Marilyn Monroe biopic Marilyn: The Untold Story, Why Me?, the story of a disfigured Air Force nurse who loses her baby, A Message from Holly, about two women bonding as one dies of cancer, and even the adaptation of the long running young adult book series The Baby-Sitters Club. Only four years into her career, which spanned to 2002, Young handles the themes and material with aplomb, and the script laid a sound foundation for Maxwell to put on screen.

Of course, all of Young and Peck’s screenplay for Little Darlings could have been lost if the girls cast in the roles hadn’t been up to the task. Tatum O’Neal had been on front of camera since she was ten years old and co-starred with her father Ryan in Peter Bogdanovich’s film Paper Moon and followed that up with the more kid friendly (at the time, go back and watch it now and it seems like a hard PG-13 at best) The Bad News Bears. Her romantic rich girl is lost in the fantasy of sex, and watching the actress play the character as she comes to grip with some realities is a joy to behold. Likewise, Kristy McNichol gives a solid performance as Angel. At one point she tells Randy, “Don’t let the name fool ya.”, but she’s really trying to fool everyone. With her tomboyish demeanor, flip attitude, and constant smoking, Angel wants to come off as aloof and emotionless. When that façade falls, it is a sight to behold. McNichol would go on to make White Dog with legendary director Sam Fuller, the erotically charged Two Moon Junction with Zalman King, and ultimately make her biggest claim to fame on the long running sitcom Empty Nest.

While O’Neal and McNichol are the grounding (and very Scotch-Irish sounding) force in Little Darlings, the supporting cast is almost just as important. I’ve already gone on too long so I won’t single out all the campers, but Krista Erickson (Jekyll and Hyde…Together Again, Mortal Passions) surely deserves a special mention as the snide, bitchy queen bee Cinder. Likewise, I have to say something about a couple of early roles from actors who would become quite well known. This was only Matt Dillon’s second film, but even in this small role, his charisma shines through, and it was the first film for Sex in the City’s Cynthia Nixon who is nearly unrecognizable as a long blonde haired hippie girl. There’s no way that I can start wrapping this up without saying at least something about Armand Assante. With a floppy head of brown, curly hair, he’s a far cry from the actor who would later play John Gotti in a film about the gangster’s life. His scenes with O’Neal are some of the best, and emotion filled, moments of Little Darlings.

Going into Little Darlings, I wasn’t sure what to expect. I had heard people absolutely love the flick and heard it unmercifully slammed, and it seems to be one of those love it or hate it films. I fall on the love side. Little Darlings feels like a glimpse into a side of life I never would have otherwise experienced, and in the long run, isn’t that what movies should be all about? Sadly, other than the showings on TCM, Little Darlings remains out of print in the States due to issues with the rights to the music. As I understand, some versions of the film have sound-a-like songs laid into the place of the real tunes, but if that was the case with the TCM version then the imposters riffing on songs like “All My Love” by John Lennon, “One Way or Another” by Blondie, and “School” by Supertramp were spot on. (If I had to guess the sticking point in the music, I would venture it’s the cost or licensing of the Lennon tune, but that is unadulterated speculation.) I highly encourage folks to tune in or tape Little Darlings if they catch it next Saturday on TCM or anywhere they can find it. Unlike so much of the teen camp fare that came out of the 80s, Little Darlings brings some substance to go with the summer camp hijinx. So don’t let the name fool ya, they may be Little Darlings, but their story is the stuff growing up is made of.

Bugg Rating

In case you can't wait for TCM, YouTube does seem to have a version of the film on it.

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