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► Our Ladies is in UK cinemas now.
- Reviewed from the 2019 BFI London Film Festival.
It would be tempting, given the cast of teenage Catholic schoolgirls that embarks on a journey of sexual discovery in Edinburgh, to call Our Ladies a coming-of-age film. But like its rebellious ensemble of cool, catty, clever and disarmingly sweary characters, it defies stereotypes. And – especially given the girls’ desire for a shag with whoever, wherever – it would more accurately be described as a coming-wherever-you-can-get-your-kicks movie with a soundtrack of 1990s nostalgia.
Based on a novel (Sopranos, by Alan Warner), it’s set in the desolate west-coast town of Fort William in the Highlands, where opportunities for Orla, Finoula, Amanda and their gang don’t extend far beyond a job at the local Woolies or getting knocked up on the local housing estate. But it’s 1996 and optimism is in the air. A submarine full of sailors is in town and the choir are off on a day trip to perform in a singing competition where they can sneak off to shop, smoke and do shots – if they can dress old enough to get served. Cue crop tops, leather boots, and attempts to sweet-talk the bouncers (and yes, they do know their star signs).
With its religious foundation and character archetyping (Orla, played with warmth by Tallulah Greive, is the relatable one; Kayla, in a scene-grabbing performance by Marli Siu, is the devious one, and so on), there’s an obvious comparison here to hit Channel 4 comedy Derry Girls.
But Our Ladies is not so innocent as the TV show. With few expectations about their future prospects, and with very, very little faith in god, the girls from Our Ladies of Perpetual Succour are determined to live for the moment. Kay is the doctors’ daughter destined for university; Orla has been to Lourdes and ‘cured’ of leukaemia. Yet neither of them really believes in that future or past. Theirs is a ‘bottoms up, knickers down’ mentality, and as they encounter boys, girls, older men and enough booze to make you feel queasy even thinking about sambuca, Sister Condron (‘Sister Condom’, played by a fabulously understated Kate Dickie) can do little to keep them in check.
For these girls exude power. Even in the film’s most nail-biting moment of anxiety, when the girls go home with an older man who can only hope to impress women half his age, Kayla and her friends hold all the cards. Safe in the knowledge of their no-hope futures, they are resolutely unimpressed by men who are for the most part props in a female-centred narrative. Some men are sweet, some are ridiculous. It doesn’t matter, because Our Ladies is not their story. With refreshing boldness the film allows teenage girls to be aggressive, determined, happy and horny. Unlike other teen flicks that preach the virtues of safe sex or even abstinence, Our Ladies, for all its Catholic framing, never seeks to undermine the girls’ sexuality or arts of drunken seduction. They may wake up with bleary-eyed regrets, but they are never shamed for knowing (or not) what they really, really want.
At times the personal drama and determination to get laid does came at narrative expense, and there are some missed beats throughout the film where more could have been at stake. What happens to the girls if they don’t make it back in time for the choir concert? What becomes of them if they get kicked out of school? Where are all of their parents? But these are minor concerns and the film somehow gets away with its lack of structural tension. Besides, there’s a sense of teenage naturalism to a story with no consequences: there is only now, and no thought for tomorrow.
Additionally, there are enough montages and musical performances with too-cool-for-skool pop video aesthetics to keep the momentum going. Nodding to high-end Hollywood high school films (although never slipping so far into that polished world of choreography and finesse), Our Ladies sees its characters as they see themselves – as stars of their own lives. One particular standout is a high-energy karaoke performance of Tainted Love, intercut with Fin’s languorous lesbian desire for Kay in a moment of discovery and sexual possibility, the camera here offering a soft gaze and a hard longing that eschews conventional representations of queerness for teen girls. Under Michael Caton-Jones’s direction and Denis Crossan’s cinematography, the girls are sexual on their own terms and never appear hyper-sexualised for a male audience. It’s a revelation.
And, after a day of onscreen revelations and relationship-changing encounters, the film starts back where it begins with the girls standing clad in white beside a scenic Highland loch, like tragic maidens from a folk song about to cast themselves into the water. However, as Orla’s voiceover tells us, female sexual desire is old as the hills, and they are no lovelorn victims. While the girls may not have the aspirational futures we perhaps expect for our cinematic heroines, they nevertheless transcend their surroundings to tell a far bigger story about life, lust and love among friends.
Our Ladies, then, is a must-see riot of girl power and teen spirit that redefines how girls get to have sex and talk about sexuality on screen. A glowing school report on behalf of Scottish and British cinema, it’s definitely one to watch when it appears on general release.
Originally published: 10 October 2019