Editor KC Wingert reviews Michael Caton-Jones’ female-led film at BFI LFF 2019.
The Scottish comedy Our Ladies made its world premiere on Friday, 4th October, as part of the BFI London Film Festival. Given the popularity and critical success of the Alan Warner novel on which Our Ladies is based—which also spawned a West End musical adaptation from Lee Hall (Rocketman, Billy Elliot)—the film bills itself as a hilariously entertaining romp, documenting a day in the lives of five schoolgirls from the Scottish Highlands. Set in the mid-‘90s, Our Ladies could be an ode to navigating raging hormones and desperate crushes similar to Ten Things I Hate About You or a touching coming-of-age story á la Lady Bird. Unfortunately, Our Ladies is not on par with these nostalgic genre classics, missing a few of the key features that make its mid-‘90s teen comedy companions so great.
Orla, Fionnula, Kylah, Rachell, and Amanda are the self-proclaimed “partiers” of their Catholic school’s choir. They’re all completely obsessed with sex, gossiping about who’s shagged whom the entire bus ride down to a choir competition in Edinburgh. The girls make plans to spend the day drinking, shopping, and finding men to sleep with before their big performance that evening. However, as tensions among them unexpectedly begin to rise, they split off from each other, embarking on their own Edinburgh adventures.
Not all of these girls are as experienced as their open attitudes towards sex imply. Orla (Tallulah Greive), for instance, begins the film praying to a portrait of Jesus hung in her room that she might have sex that evening because, unlike Jesus’ mother, she “doesn’t want to be a virgin her whole life.” Fionnula (Abigail Lawrie), on the other hand, has slept with plenty of guys, but what she’d really like is to sleep with a girl—one of the few secrets she keeps from her friends. With womanhood fast approaching, the girls are forced to think hard about their futures perhaps for the first time, and the conclusions to which they begin to come make them realise they may have less in common with each other than they thought. For some of them, the thought of being a teen mum and staying in their small Highland town forever is the dream—while others in the group look upon that attitude with derision.
Though these characters’ separate journeys are entertaining to watch and elicit several genuine laughs, they get in the way of a cohesive plot. In fact, a lot of the characters’ actions feel less like they have narrative purpose and more like they’ve been shoved in as a punchline. The narrative structure of Our Ladies feels awkward and ham-fisted right down to the corny, character-by-character epilogues.
(Can I please take a brief moment to say how much I hate epilogues in fiction films? If this character’s future isn’t important enough to merit a sequel, it’s not important enough to show an inspirational music-backed freezeframe of that fictional character’s face with some text telling us where they fictionally moved after leaving their fictional hometown and what kind of fictional job they have, in this work of FICTION).
Our Ladies’ queer subplot ends on a triumphant note that feels wholly unearned, and the entire main conflict of the film is ameliorated with a hackneyed kumbaya moment after which everyone just carries on as usual. There’s even a random, inexplicable musical number written in, which feels out of place in a film that otherwise seems to be making an attempt at gritty realism. The final act simply devolves into a bunch of jokey bits that are meant to be funny but because of the subject matter—underage girls getting involved with older men—are actually just very uncomfortable to watch.
A good coming-of-age film should be one that almost anyone can see a little bit of themselves in. Unfortunately, Our Ladies doles out characters that are unlikable and unrealistic. It deals with the hormonally-charged boy-craziness of a group of teenage girls in a way that doesn’t highlight the hilarity and awkwardness of exploring one’s sexuality in the way so many great teen comedies do. Rather, it feels exploitative; the cast of young girls is depictd as gladly flirting with unbelievably creepy older men, having sex while completely wasted and then casually laughing it off later, and reacting nonchalantly when a man exposes himself to them and proposes an orgy.
Perhaps this exploration of teenage girls’ sexualities misses the mark because, despite the fact that the main cast is entirely female, neither the writer nor the director of this film a woman. In fact, Our Ladies’ unequivocally odd choice of writer/director is Michael Caton-Jones – otherwise best known for directing the 2002 feature Basic Instinct 2, which Wikipedia describes as an “erotic crime thriller” and Rotten Tomatoes describes as “bad.”
Our Ladies comes to us at a time when ‘90s nostalgia is in high demand and women’s stories are being celebrated in film more often than ever. The film has an incredibly talented young cast and a promising pitch, but potential alone cannot make a film good. Our Ladies lacks authenticity in its hollow attempt at sex-positivity, and because it deals with the stories of teenage girls, that failure comes across as not only sexist but also as downright creepy. I’m not going to say conclusively that men can’t tell girls’ coming-of-age stories—Bo Burnham proves they can with his 2018 feature Eighth Grade, for instance. However, Caton-Jones (who, again, DIRECTED BASIC INSTINCT 2) demonstrates that he does not possess the insight into the mind of a teenage girl necessary to tell this story well.