Do you remember what it felt like to steal glances of your middle school crush in the halls? Or the angst that washed over you as a high school senior daydreaming about getting out into the world? What about the fuzzy sensation in your stomach when you floated into your bedroom after that really great first date and wanted nothing more but to be immediately back in their presence? Longing is ridiculously bittersweet. It’s agonizing and exhilarating all at the same time. Gurinder Chadha has made a career out of capturing this fevered air and bottling it into 110-minute motion pictures.
Through the decades, the British writer/director has worn her heart on her sleeve in the name of creating works that center female longing and desire, particularly through a multicultural lens. From her smash hit Bend It Like Beckham to her four-storied drama What’s Cooking?, Chadha has approached the yearnings of her female protagonists with sincerity and compassion. In particular, two of her movies from the late ‘00s and early ‘10s, Angus, Thongs and Perfect Snogging and It’s a Wonderful Afterlife, relish the beauty and dangers of intense female fervor.
In 2008’s Angus, Thongs and Perfect Snogging, Georgia Nicolson (Georgia Groome) is a spunky secondary school student on the cusp of her 15th birthday. Holding up the foundation of her green world are the pillars every developing person should have: A loving family, a tightknit friend group and a gorgeous Persian cat. But—as one often does at age 14—Georgia longs for more. According to her, her parents are too out of touch with her time, her face and body are offensive and she’s hopelessly inexperienced in the subjects of physical touch and romance. When a pair of dreamy fraternal twins move into her sleepy seaside town, Georgia turns her life upside down in pursuit of sensitive bass player Robbie (baby-faced Aaron Taylor-Johnson). Upon discovering that Robbie is paired up with Lindsay (Kimberley Nixon), the film’s blonde, modelesque antagonist, Georgia springs into action. Unfortunately for her, the best schemes her tweenish mind can come up with include taking kissing lessons from a gawky underclassman who later becomes obsessed with her and attending one of Robbie’s gigs with a mate of his in an attempt to make him jealous.
If a coming-of-age film about an awkward teenage girl celebrating her birthday while fighting off an excessively eager freshman admirer and fawning over an out-of-her-league hunk with a beautiful but shallow girlfriend sounds familiar to you, it’s by design. Angus, Thongs and Perfect Snogging is adapted from Louise Rennison’s young adult novels Angus, Thongs and Full-Frontal Snogging and It’s OK, I’m Wearing Really Big Knickers. When Chadha was brought on as a screenwriter for the project, the script had originally been adapted by two American men:
I read the script and thought how weird, this is a sort of L.A. male’s version of an English girl’s childhood and then I read the books and I thought wow, there is something here that relates to me growing up that I hadn’t seen in the script…Then it clicked that it should be like Sixteen Candles.
In Angus, Thongs and Perfect Snogging, Chadha takes the pastel glitz of ‘80s John Hughes movies and runs wild. Her British Samantha Baker sleeps in a peach-colored bedroom within a cotton-candy-pink house, located inside a pastel rainbow neighborhood. Her blown-out skies are so bright that they are almost white. Her intimate moments are wrapped in a warm, reddish filter. And when she finds herself near Eastbourne Pier, the calm sea provides a delightful baby blue backdrop for her to bloom. The town becomes a cushiony candyland where she can dream and explore her newfound desires with safety and reassurance. This pale palette reflects Georgia’s teenage lust. It’s new. It’s fleeting. It’s innocent, even. She’s longing for more adult experiences, but approaching them with a naivety and childishness that only this delicate age can offer. Where society tends to belittle teen girls for crushing too hard and obsessing over cute boys in bands, Chadha celebrates it through her use of soft color.
This celebration of all things lustful and curious continues through editing and soundtrack. In one especially joyful scene, Georgia lays her eyes on Robbie and his brother for the very first time and declares, “it’s boy-stalking time.” Without missing a beat, the sprightly pop-rock intro of The Rumble Strips’ “Girls and Boys in Love” kicks off a montage of Georgia and best friends Jas (Eleanor Tomlinson), Ellen (Manjeeven Grewal) and Rosie (Georgia Henshaw) chasing the brothers around their school and town. The minute-long sequence features cheerful images of Georgia peeking out from a bookshelf to look at Robbie in their school library, the girl gang taking notes on which fish and chip shop the brothers frequent and even a cringey dance number the group giggles their way through. The combination of upbeat music and images of female joy make the onscreen yearning quite infectious.
The film explores longing and also encourages its viewers to join in. Through diary-style voiceover and the reoccurring point-of-view shot, Chadha intentionally promotes identification with its underdog protagonist. When Georgia spies on Robbie, we see him through her eyes. When Robbie looks at Georgia, he looks at us. When I watched this movie as a tween (who, like Georgia, had also fallen victim to the side bang), it ignited a desire to grow up and live a life full of cinematic romance and excitement. Watching the film today, far away from the girl I was at 14, I am reminded of the intense emotions of my schoolgirl days: My embarrassingly long list of crushes; the way a single look could melt me into a gooey puddle of hormones and poorly straightened hair. And how beautiful it felt to live for the hope of it all (hey, Taylor Swift). A small part of me watches Angus, Thongs and Perfect Snogging today and feels a longing for longing.
The other part of me watches with regret. Because while there is great beauty in Georgia’s desires, there’s also self-loathing and internalized misogyny. Throughout the film, Georgia makes a number of negative comments towards her physical appearance: “My nose is the size of Jupiter” and “I need to go into an ugly home” are two that stand out. A lot of her body issues appear to stem from her constant self-comparison to girls like Lindsay.
Now, Lindsay isn’t the nicest person around, but she is largely antagonized for her developed breasts and thin underwear. Georgia spends half the movie hating her and the other half trying to be like her. In Lindsay, hyperfemininity is simultaneously coveted and villainized. Here, Georgia falls victim to a classic pitfall of teen-girl longing: Exploding with love for a crush, but not extending any of that compassion and admiration to herself or her female counterparts. This aspect of the film serves as a reminder that female desire can often be dangerous and misguided when rooted in patriarchal ideals.
In her follow-up film, It’s a Wonderful Afterlife, Chadha takes this idea to an extreme when her protagonist’s desires grow so intense that they become murderous. The Capra-inspired comedy follows Mrs. Sethi (Shabana Azmi) on a rollercoaster journey through life and death. Sethi wants nothing more than to see her daughter Roopi (Goldy Notay) married. When members of their community stand in the way of Sethi’s desire, she takes their lives. Consequently, the spirits of those she slays come back to haunt her, spelling mayhem for the mother and her loved ones.
What’s important to understand is that Mrs. Sethi, like Georgia, doesn’t act upon injurious desires due to an innate evilness or bad nature, but because she feels cornered by the rigid values of her community. In Georgia’s heteronormative pubescent world, having a boyfriend is the ultimate prize and, for her, winning this prize means viewing other girls as threats and altering her appearance to resemble her perceived enemies. In Sethi’s similarly normative adult culture, marriage equals success. She longs to see Roopi be successful in this regard, but fatphobia and a narrow perception of female beauty challenge that on a daily basis. Roopi is witty, intelligent and caring—everything you’d want out of a life-long partner—but the only thing people around her see is her weight. Near the start of the film, Mrs. Sethi and Roopi attend a meeting with a man they believe can be a husband prospect. But when the potential suitor walks out in a fit of anger upon seeing Roopi, Sethi is chastised. “You told me she has lost some weight. How can I help you find someone for her when she’s bigger than the boys I show you?” an aunty scolds. Later, the frustrated mom shoves a grilling skewer through the judgmental woman’s neck. In Sethi, we observe another case of female desire which becomes contorted (and wicked) under the harsh constraints of outside expectations. Nonetheless, Chadha approaches her story with humanity and her signature sense of humor.
Like the whole of Chadha’s filmography, Angus, Thongs and Perfect Snogging and It’s a Wonderful Afterlife explore the nuances of female passion in women of different ages, backgrounds and circumstances. They’re laugh-out-loud funny films that peel back the layers of what it means to long—and consummate our desires—in realities plagued by the cruelties of patriarchy and sexism.
Kathy Michelle Chacón is a Gen-Z writer, academic and filmmaker based in sunny California. When she’s not writing for Paste, Film Cred or Kathychacon.com, you can find her eating pupusas, cuddling with her dog Strawberry or sweating her face off somewhere in the Inland Empire.