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,Little Darlings

Little Darlings

When it was released in 1980 Little Darlings, a feature vehicle for teenage stars Kristy McNichol and Tatum O'Neal, was considered controversial for its subject matter: McNichol and O'Neal play 15-year-olds who, after being packed off to camp, engage in a duel to see who can lose her virginity first. The picture was rated R, presumably for its frankness in dealing with its subject matter. But what's remarkable about it today isn't how innocent it seems; in fact, it comes off as unusually perceptive. Even though we generally think there's more nudity, coarse language and sexual behavior in contemporary movies, the reality is that Hollywood is more skittish -- perhaps more so than it has ever been -- about showing sexuality on-screen, particularly when underage characters are involved.

Little Darlings was directed by Ronald F. Maxwell. It was his first feature; until that point, he had chiefly directed movies made for TV, and that's where his career took him afterward, too (although immediately after Little Darlings, he did make the 1981 The Night the Lights Went Out in Georgia, also starring McNichol).

Little Darlings was written by Kimi Peck and Dalene Young, from a story by Peck, and there are places where both the character development and the pacing falters, and the comedy (including a mess hall food fight) sometimes feels forced. At the time of the movie's release, Roger Ebert wrote in his Chicago Sun Times review that Little Darlings "really wants to be two movies at once: A fairly serious film about teenagers and sex, but also a box-office winner like Animal House or Meatballs."

Yet the picture has a kind of off-the-cuff vitality, the sort of thing that you rarely see in contemporary mainstream sexual coming-of-age stories, which are often just too knowing, too self-aware. In Little Darlings, McNichol and O'Neal play young women from different ends of the class spectrum: McNichol's Angel is a tough-talking, T-shirt-wearing, cigarette-smoking wise-cracker who's being raised by a single mom. O'Neal's Ferris comes from an upper-crust family (she arrives to catch the camp bus in a natty Jay Gatsby-like getup), but she's smarting because her mother has just taken off, perhaps permanently. The two take an instant dislike to one another and are all too happy to compete in the challenge laid out by a wily, sexually precocious cabin mate (Krista Errickson): The first of the two to lose her virginity will win $100. Ferris sets her sights on sultry-sweet camp counselor Gary (Armand Assante); Angel puts the moves on a boy attending a neighboring camp, a laconic heartthrob named Randy (played by an oh-so-young Matt Dillon).

The girls have different but perhaps equally awkward seduction styles: O'Neal shows up at Gary's cabin in a frilly white nightie and makes dreamy observations about Romeo and Juliet. Angel grabs a canoe and a paddle and heads over to the boys' side of the lake, beckoning Randy to jump in and swim over to her -- he obliges, wearing the kind of ridiculous grin that only the very young can get away with. Although both O'Neal and McNichol give good performances here, McNichol's goes further and cuts deeper. Even though she seems, on the surface, less fragile and more worldly than Ferris is, her first sexual encounter -- which the movie handles delicately, not graphically -- affects her deeply, and McNichol shows it. It doesn't seem Angel has had a terrible time. Yet somehow the experience and the subsequent rush of feeling it sets off have surprised her. She huddles in the empty summer house where she and Randy have just made love, and though he's right next to her, she's gone far away from him. She says, simply, "I feel so lonely."

Just two years later, Fast Times at Ridgemont High (1982) would also deal -- at least in part -- with teenage sexuality from a young woman character's point of view; many years later, American Pie (1999, in the midst of its crass humor) would again do the same. Even so, Hollywood movies have gotten less comfortable with, not more, addressing the emotional cost attached to a first sexual encounter. If Little Darlings were to be made today, it would be a very different picture, probably a less emotionally forthright one. And you can bet it wouldn't depict a teenage protagonist doing anything so depraved as smoking. In some ways, American youth as depicted in the movies has gotten more innocent rather than less.

By the time she appeared in Little Darlings, O'Neal had already shown plenty of on-screen precociousness in pictures like the 1973 Paper Moon (in which she appeared with her father, Ryan O'Neal) and the 1976 The Bad News Bears. (McNichol, in fact, had also auditioned for the lead role in Bears.) Little Darlings was a launching pad for two other actors as well: Cynthia Nixon appears in the picture as the hippie-dippy charmer Sunshine -- watching the movie, you can see how her shy half-smile has remained almost unchanged for some 30 years. And Matt Dillon went on to have perhaps the most successful career of all. At the time of Little Darlings, Dillon's personal manager, Vic Ramos, got the young actor into the pages of every teen magazine on the stands. As Michael Ferguson relays in his 2005 book Idol Worship: A Shameless Celebration of Male Beauty in the Movies, Dillon would appear in those magazines "holding teddy bears, reading the latest issue of Tiger Beat, signing love and kisses to the fans, and endlessly baring his shirtless physique so that you could trace his adolescent development one belly button or chest hair at a time."

Dillon wasn't comfortable with the heartthrob image, and he wasn't comfortable with nudity, either: In the screen test he did for The Blue Lagoon (also released in 1980), he's said to have stated outright, "I ain't showin' my dork." But his performance in Little Darlings is tender, almost more innocently sexy than McNichol's is -- ultimately, his character is just as bewildered by his own feelings as she is by hers.

As terrific as McNichol is in Little Darlings, her movie career didn't exactly take off as a result. At the time, she was already a TV superstar thanks to her role in the late-'70s series Family, and years later, she would return to television in Empty Nest. But McNichol had the misfortune of giving what was perhaps her finest film performance in a movie whose release was suppressed: Sam Fuller's 1982 White Dog, about the rehabilitation of an otherwise docile German Shepherd who has been trained to attack and kill people of color, was squelched after the NAACP complained to its studio, Paramount, about what the group perceived, mistakenly, as the movie's racist subject matter. The film won some attention and acclaim when it finally played in art houses some 10 years later, and it has since been released on DVD. But McNichol's movie career never achieved the momentum it might have. In the late '90s, she faded even from the television scene, ostensibly having had enough -- for the time being, at least -- with acting.

But even at the time of Little Darlings, when McNichol was riding high, an article from a 1980 issue of People magazine suggests some hints of vulnerability: "Indeed, despite the tough persona that Kristy is now displaying, there is something touchingly teenage about her major concerns: independence, friends, clothes and boys, in about that order." The article, written when McNichol was 17, outlines the actress' plan to move into a new house with her best friend, Ina Liberace (niece of the renowned pianist). McNichol had bought the four-bedroom cape cod four years earlier, at the age of 13. The house, McNichol told people, was near "West Hollywood and all the good shops," and she and Ina were "gonna have a bet on who's a better cook, have our friends over and judge us." That People magazine article suggests that McNichol, like her character in Little Darlings, just couldn't wait to taste more of what adulthood and independence had to offer.

Producer: Stephen J. Friedman
Director: Ronald F. Maxwell
Screenplay: Kimi Peck (screenplay and story); Dalene Young (screenplay)
Cinematography: Beda Batka
Music: Charles Fox
Film Editing: Pembroke J. Herring
Cast: Tatum O'Neal (Ferris), Kristy McNichol (Angel), Armand Assante (Gary), Matt Dillon (Randy), Maggie Blye (Ms. Bright), Nicolas Coster (Mr. Whitney), Krista Errickson (Cinder), Alexa Kenin (Dana), Abby Bluestone (Chubby), Cynthia Nixon (Sunshine).

by Stephanie Zacharek
(Stephanie is the chief movie critic for Movieline -

Chicago Sun Times
Karen G. Jackovich, "Tatum & Kristy Coming of Age," People, March 31, 1980
Michael Ferguson, Idol Worship: A Shameless Celebration of Male Beauty in the Movies, 2005, STARbooks Press