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Bill Forsyth's whimsical Gregory's Girl (1981) is a gently offbeat romantic comedy of first love that celebrates the adolescent innocence of the ways of love and sex and all the other things on the minds of high school students, both male and female. Gregory (John Gordon Sinclair, who billed himself as Gordon John Sinclair to sound less Scottish) is a gangly, goofy student quite happy to wander through life at his own speed (punctuality is not one of his strong points). When he loses his spot on the all-male school football (that's soccer to us) team to a girl, Dorothy (Dee Hepburn), he's not upset. In fact, he's instantly smitten. She's athletic, talented, pretty and utterly focused on football and Gregory is all unfocussed energy and unchecked hormones. He has no idea that another girl, Susan (Clare Grogan), has a crush on him and he hasn't the first idea what to do when Dorothy accepts his proposal for a date without hesitation. That's about all there is to the plot. The film's pleasures come from Forsyth's observational style, fresh characters, and quietly eccentric sense of humor.
By his own admission, Forsyth was not much of a film fan growing up and stumbled into filmmaking only after taking a job in a small Glasgow production company that made industrial and training films. As his interest in cinema grew, he found inspiration in the French nouvelle vague, in particular Jean-Luc Godard and Louis Malle. The former influenced his early experimental shorts, but it's the gentle humanism and warm sensibilities (not to mention the affinity with youth) of Malle and Franois Truffaut that come through in his first features.
After a professional apprenticeship and a stint as a freelance editor, Forsyth formed his own production company in Glasgow, again making industrial films and documentaries, but his inability to break out into feature filmmaking frustrated him so he left in 1977 to mount his own production. He wrote Gregory's Girl for the young actors he met at the Glasgow Youth Theater, but there was no industry or financial support available in Scotland at the time and he couldn't raise financing. So he wrote a new script tailored to the lives of his cast and the restrictions of a production funded entirely out of pocket. That Sinking Feeling (1980), a quirky comedy about some unemployed youths who mastermind a heist of kitchen sinks, was shot for the equivalent of $10,000. It was, according to Forsyth, the first indigenous Scottish film, and its success helped him secure funding for Gregory's Girl, also cast largely from the ranks of the Glasgow Youth Theater and shot in Cumbernauld, a suburban "new town" near Glasgow.
"I don't have a style," Forsyth told Gerald Peary in 1985. "I suppose the only style I've got is to be as unobtrusive as possible." That's exactly what he does here, sitting back with his camera to catch the ephemeral qualities of youth in all its joy passing in front of his lens (there are no bad guys or bullies in this harmless town). His affinity with his cast is apparent from the affection with which he shapes their characters and observes their lives. He has fun with them all without ever making fun of them. Gregory's best friend Steve (William Greenlees) is a budding pastry chef who has turned his passion into a black market business, selling goodies out of the boy's restroom (what would the Department of Health have to say about the donuts and marzipan stacked up in the back of a toilet?) and taking orders from the headmasters. His is just one obsession among the male population of the school. An entrepreneurial photographer sells photos of Dorothy in the boy's room stall next to pastries and conducts entire conversations in terms of f-stops and lenses. A would-be Romeo trots out dubious trivia (which usually begin with "It's a well know fact that...") as pick-up lines, undeterred by his singular lack of success. And the headmaster himself spends his lunch hour pounding away ditties on the music room piano, oblivious (or simply indifferent) to the chaos around him. Vaudeville veteran Chic Murray brings a perfect balance of unforced authority and theatrical gesture when he shoos away a curious audience with an "Off you go, you small boys."
The obliviously nave boys are fascinated and utterly mystified by girls. The knowing and sophisticated girls are equally amused by the boys and their fumbling awkwardness, but never arrogant about it. When Gregory's little sister discovers her older brother is in love (the grapevine gossip gets to her school before he even gets home), she sits him down and, quite intently, offers him much needed advice. And when Gregory leaves to meet his date, a benign cabal of high school girls goes into action to play matchmaker with the hapless boy, passing him from hand to hand with practiced ease until he ends up with the one destined to be Gregory's girl.
This little film was a big hit in Britain (it played for 75 weeks in London) and the United States (where the soundtrack was re-recorded to soften the heavy accents), charming audiences with its eccentric humor, offbeat characters and unassuming modesty. Forsyth followed it up with the even more acclaimed Local Hero (1983) and soon left for Hollywood, where some bad experiences soured him on filmmaking, almost for good. He reunited with star John Gordon Sinclair for the 1999 sequel Gregory's Two Girls, with Sinclair playing an English teacher at his old high school and still as confused about romance as ever. As of this writing, Bill Forsyth has not made another film, but his legacy is going strong. The success of Gregory's Girl led to the development of the Scottish Film Production Fund, Glasgow Film Fund and other financing organizations and paved the way for talents like Danny Boyle (Shallow Grave, 1994) and Lynne Ramsay (Ratcatcher, 1999) to get their first features made. All from this gentle, whimsical, affectionate little comedy of first love and adolescent spirit, surely the most unassuming film to launch a national cinema.
Producers: Davina Belling, Clive Parsons
Director: Bill Forsyth
Screenplay: Bill Forsyth
Cinematography: Michael Coulter
Art Direction: Adrienne Atkinson
Music: Colin Tully
Film Editing: John Gow
Cast: Gordon John Sinclair (Gregory), Dee Hepburn (Dorothy), Jake D'Arcy (Phil Menzies), Clare Grogan (Susan), Robert Buchanan (Andy), William Greenlees (Steve), Allan Love (Eric), Caroline Guthrie (Carol), Carol Macartney (Margo).
C-91m. Closed captioning.
by Sean Axmaker