Girl Asleep finds truth in childish things

Adolescence is tough. This is a truth that cinema, since the invention of the teenager as a social category in the 1950s, has always acknowledged. Like each stage of the life cycle, adolescence has its own specific trials and tribulations – it is a time of confusion, experimentation, discovery, and fear. In films as disparate as Mean Girls (2004), Juno (2007), The Perks of Being a Wallflower (2012), The Virgin Suicides (1999), and The Year My Voice Broke (1987), to wake up in that liminal space between childhood and adulthood is imagined as a dark and perilous prospect.

In the quirky new Australian film, Girl Asleep, we meet Greta Driscoll (Bethany Whitmore) in the middle of this awakening. Greta is about to turn 15. She’s shy, which doesn’t make being at a new school and friendless, an easy task. The film opens with a shot that emphasises both Greta’s centrality to the narrative and her isolation from others. She’s seated alone on a bench, eating lunch, while other school kids cavort in the background. Enter Elliott (Harrison Feldman), the class geek, who’s keen to make a connection. He asks a lot of questions and declares that while being 14 is “good … 15 is going to herald the dawn of a new era.” By the end of lunch, Greta and Elliott are friends, and celebrate the occasion with pink doughnuts.

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Elliott (Harrison Feldman) and Greta (Bethany Whitmore) find refuge in their friendship

As Greta seems to be finding a safe nook in which to take shelter with Elliott, a trio of formidable sisters – Jade (Maiah Stewardson), Sapphire (Fiona Dawson) and Amber (Grace Dawson) – corners her in the bathroom. These mean girls claim to want Greta’s friendship – and advice about kissing boys, “more tongue or less?” – but we’ve seen enough teen movies to recognise the potential for humiliation to come. These sexual provocations are mostly performative and Greta exhibits curiosity and horror in equal parts.

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The mean sisters as they appear at Greta’s birthday party

Girl Asleep began life as a play developed and produced by the Windmill Theatre. It premiered as part of their trilogy for teenage audiences at the 2014 Adelaide Festival of Arts. The screenplay, like the play, is written by Matthew Whittet, he also appears as Greta’s father, Conrad. Director Rosemary Myers is the Windmill Theatre’s Artistic Director. Girl Asleep makes ample use of familiar tropes from teenage coming of age films – school as hell, the nerdy sidekick, the oversexed nemesis, the embarrassing parents, the sexually precocious older sister – but it’s memorable mostly for what it does differently. While its origins as a stage production are clear, the film’s art design employs a hyper-real colour palette and kitschy seventies aesthetic. A sequence in which party guests each arrives dancing to Sylvester’s disco hit ‘You Make Me Feel (Mighty Real)’ epitomises its surreal, immersive vibe.

Greta’s growing pains coalesce around the 15th birthday party she reluctantly agrees to let her parents throw for her with her entire class in attendance. Her mum, Janet (Amber McMahon), believes it is Greta’s time to wake up, to emerge from her shell, and buys her a pretty pink dress to kickstart her transformation. But Greta isn’t comfortable in dresses, or as the centre of attention; she’s most comfortable in the private sanctuary of her bedroom, surrounded by her stuff, including a plastic horse collection and letters from her pen pal. She’s most comfortable with the childish things that society tells her she’ll need to abandon in order to grow up.

Girl Asleep excavates one girl’s specific psychological landscape. Too many teen films are concerned with ageing kids up, with pointing them towards adulthood with a sense of urgency. But Greta’s journey is distinct for its focus on the unconscious, and for revealing the very real, ongoing tension between growth and regression. Where many teen films position the protagonist looking outward, stepping outside of what is expected and known in an attempt to taste and experience it all, Greta journeys inwards. It’s a somewhat surreal adventure, but one always anchored by a recognisable emotional landscape.

And yet even as she lies sleeping, Greta isn’t a passive figure in this landscape. She’s an active dreamer. When she escapes her party – after humiliation at the hands of the three mean sisters finally, cruelly arrives – it’s into her bedroom and into her dreams where she is in control. An electric spark from her beloved music box precipitates a dream sequence that propels Greta deep into the nightmarish forest that adjoins her house, in pursuit of the music box, which has been commandeered by a strange creature with a papier-mâché head.

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What lurks within this strange creature with the papier-mâché head?

The sexual symbolism of both the forest and the box are evident; the box might also be viewed as the locus of secrets reminiscent of the blue box that appears in David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive (2011). In the forest, Greta encounters versions of people in her life that challenge her sense of the world and her place in it, including a French singer who looks just like her sister’s boyfriend, Adam (Eamon Farren), and offers to “deflower” her. But it is the final encounter, when the music box is finally returned that has the most profound impact – a simultaneous embrace of the magic of youth and a mourning for its inevitable loss.

Girl Asleep is an inventive and entertaining approach to a genre that often offers little challenge to accepted knowledge about adolescence and the strain of growing up. And it’s an important reminder, at a time when girls are increasingly sexualised and hurried into womanhood, that holding onto those things that made our hearts swell as children, might just be the greatest liberation of all.