Growing up can be brutal. Especially when you’re at what Finnish director Alli Haapasalo describes as the “liminal” age of 17 or 18—aware enough to know you want more, young enough not to know how to get it. In Haapasalo’s beautifully designed, emotionally honest Girl Picture, three teenagers who are not exactly girls and not yet women look for love, sex, belonging and, most importantly, the strength of their own voices to carry them through a moment in limbo.
Ronkko (Eleonoora Kauhanen) and Mimmi (Aamu Milonoff) are best friends, classmates and coworkers at a smoothie shop where they use their free time to tell each other everything. Emma (a graceful and compelling Linnea Leino) is a figure skater and fellow classmate with an eye set on the European championships, and a mother who just wants her to take some time to be a kid. When a high-strung Emma locks eyes with a cynical Mimmi at the smoothie counter, sparks fly. Whether those sparks are between friends, enemies or lovers isn’t made clear until a mutual classmate jokingly invites Mimmi and Ronkko to the party Emma begrudgingly attends that night.
While Emma and Mimmi are making nice on their own storyline, Ronkko (whom Kauhanen plays with an endearing, open bubbliness) is on a mission to orgasm, or at least to figure out what’s going wrong in her hookups. Staunchly heterosexual and in dogged pursuit of pleasure, she stumbles from one oversexed, awkward interaction to another. After failing to snare a suitor at the party with a casual conversation starter on how often Moomin mugs are used to store sperm when trying for IVF, she accidentally overhears a rejected blowjob proposal in the bathroom. Popping out from her place behind the shower curtain with an offer of her own, Ro?nkko? is a perfect look at a teen grasping for the pleasure she’s been promised, but with no real instruction about realistically pursuing it. That doesn’t stop her from trying again and again, but it also doesn’t bar her from coming to her own realizations independent of others’ expectations.
A leather-clad, surly bad-boy Mimmi faces a complementary issue. She knows how to have sex (as she advises Ronkko, you have to let your partner know what you want), but she’s frustrated and self-destructive, searching for something real only to balk when it shows up at her place of employment. Thanks to Milonoff’s deft, expressive performance and eyes that always tell the truth no matter what venom her mouth spits, Mimmi is a multi-layered, believably angsty teen whose independence comes at a slowly revealed cost. She clearly cares about the people in her life, but perhaps as a result of her absent single mother starting a new life and family without her, Mimmi can’t trust the longevity of others’ investments in her.
When this abandonment complex relents, we get some of the most gorgeous moments of the film. Watching Mimmi watching Emma demonstrate a triple lutz in the unlikeliest of settings is a pure delight. Awash in the atmospheric red light of a city at night and framed by cinematographer Jarmo Kiuru’s intimate 1:33 portraiture, Mimmi finds a new love, and Emma finds a source of attention and adoration that sees her for so much more than the skating obsession that has defined her life thus far. It’s a sequence that builds the foundation for a swift, genuine relationship which could be otherwise dismantled by Mimmi’s insecurity and defensive cruelty, or Emma’s perfectionism.
Though the narrative at times feels slightly unbalanced, with Ronkko getting the short end of the stick by a 2:1 logistical time split, the film has more than enough visual mastery, character development and conflict to hold attention. None of these teens are passive, and their actions, even when in direct opposition to each other, are cast in hopeful, relatable lenses that somehow manage to eschew the nostalgia often characteristic of the coming-of-age genre. There’s a frankness about sex and teenage romance that’s refreshing, whether it be hot and sweet, or totally ill-equipped. While the characters are exploring their sexuality, there’s no torturous coming out or internalized homophobia to speak of—nor is there any manufactured bigotry from parents or peers. They’re developing their entire identities, making at times ill-advised choices, but possessing a motivation and specificity that only serves to build the nuances of their relationships.
These are stories on a micro scale, but Haapasalo treats them with an investment and verve that respects her characters. When you’re walking the tightrope of your late teens, every day is the most important day of your life, every argument the one that will potentially bring the sky tumbling down. That Haapasalo and screenwriters Ilona Ahti and Daniela Hakulinen understand this makes for a film that not only calls out its characters on their overreactions, but examines and has great empathy for the source of those wounds. Amidst the depths of that respect and discovery, Girl Picture is a joyous, resonant snapshot of growing into one’s own, and challenging even your own expectations of who you thought you could be.
Director: Alli Haapasalo
Writer: Ilona Ahti, Daniela Hakulinen
Starring: Aamu Milonoff, Eleonoora Kauhanen, Linnea Leino
Release Date: January 24, 2022 (Sundance)
Shayna Maci Warner (@bernieteeters) is a Brooklyn-based film programmer, preservationist and GLAAD-awarded critical queer. Their words on queer feelings and films appear in Autostraddle, The Film Stage and Film Cred, among others, and they write a horny newsletter about the girls and gays that make movies worth watching. You can summon her by yodeling “Desert Hearts was robbed!” into the sunset.