One of my favorite movies I’ve seen at this year’s Sundance Film Festival is easily the Finnish coming-of-age drama, “Girl Picture,” directed by Alli Haapasalo. It is an unflinchingly honest, deeply moving and often laugh-out-loud funny exploration of three young women as they attempt to find happiness on their own terms, and without the requirement of a man. Just because a nice guy takes care of a girl when she’s hung over, it doesn’t mean he’s owed a kiss in return. Rönkkö (Eleonoora Kauhanen) is on a quest to find sexual pleasure for herself, while her sassy co-worker, Mimmi (Aamu Milonoff), at a hilariously pun-filled smoothie bar catches the eye of a smitten figure skater, Emma (Linnea Leino). All three lead performances are marvelous, while the script by Ilona Ahti and Daniela Hakulinen obliterates numerous tired tropes related to the genre.
It was a great honor for me to conduct an interview via Zoom with Leino, Milonoff, Kauhanen and Haapasalo prior to their film’s world premiere held virtually this week. Cinema Femme publisher Rebecca Martin was originally slated to chat with these exceptional talents, but had to back out last second, so I was honored to fill in for her.
In her “Meet the Artist” segment for Sundance, Alli said that the women in her film are not shamed for desiring. What other tropes regarding female characters did you want this film to upend?
Alli Haapasalo (AH): There’s a long list, and it was our guiding light in the sense that we wanted to go against them, but we first and foremost just wanted to tell a story that felt like real life. We don’t love the representation of girls and young women or women in general that we are accustomed to in cinema, and we are especially not in love with the fact that women so often are depicted as victims of some sort. This doesn’t always involve serious violent crimes. They could also be warned or nearly get in a very bad situation that is a close call. It seems to me that a lot of cinema is telling girls to moderate their behavior and how they look so that they don’t get into that danger.
Of course, a lot of women live that way, and adults are also telling us the same story throughout our youth. I think that sexuality is very often something that is portrayed as dangerous for women. You see that in the objectification of women, conveying the notion that it is dangerous to be looked at, women are forced to be looked at or they are only seen as the sexual object. If you are wanting to lead a sexually active life, it’s a normal thing, but in films, it often seems to be something that could get really dangerous. In this film, we definitely wanted to say that sexuality belongs to everyone. Even the so-called good girl is a sexual being. It’s a perfectly normal, sometimes complicated part of life, and everybody should be able to explore it safely and freely.
I loved how you said that “a fragment of life may include a whole universe.” For the actors, I’d like to know in what ways do your characters capture a fragment of your own experience in a way you’ve rarely seen onscreen?
Eleonoora Kauhanen (EK): What you see in Rönkkö’s story that I haven’t seen much elsewhere is sexuality and intimate scenes portrayed in a way where everything isn’t perfect and everything isn’t working out. That’s a very interesting and important part of her story that I believe should be portrayed more.
Linnea Leino (LL): Often in stories about ice skating that I’ve seen, the parents of teenagers are the ones through whose gaze we see the harsh training and the harshness directed towards the teenager. The skating becomes important because of the parents’ idea of what the teenager should do. In Emma’s story, she’s the one who has decided what she wants to do. She’s the one who wants to do better and to win and to see herself as an ice skater, and her parents are just supporting her. They are not the ones who are saying, “You’re doing wrong,” or, “Why were you late? That’s bad for your career!” She is the one who chooses to be tough on herself.
Aamu Milonoff (AM): It’s an interesting question. I think in Mimmi’s case, the thing that I haven’t seen so much or I thought was very well portrayed in our conversations was the fact that the emotions are so strong, they are overflowing. A young woman can be angry and frustrated and expressive and have weird emotions that she doesn’t even understand—and in the end, that’s okay. I haven’t seen that portrayed so much. At that age, you are searching for who you are and how you act with your emotions.
AH: And girls are all of these things. Oftentimes in cinema, girls are used to represent only one thing. It seems so silly to even say this out loud, as if girls aren’t human beings, but films so often depicts girls and women in some sort of one-dimensional way, which results in us seeing men as humans and girls and women as symbols. A girl doesn’t have to be a superhero or a victim in order to be interesting. The women in “Girl Picture” are just living their normal lives. They are teenage girls at this liminal age between childhood and adulthood, and that in itself holds our interest. They don’t have to be serial killers or junkies or superwomen.
EK: Another thing that I want to point out is that when we were shooting the movie, I had very bad acne, and I was really struggling with it. But after talking with everybody, I realized that it’s actually really good that I had it, because it would’ve helped me to see that onscreen. Women are usually portrayed with clear skin and filmed in hazy light, so I think it was really important that we get that representation on camera. I also had scenes where I don’t wear any makeup and there was one moment where Alli said, “Eleonoora is looking too beautiful! She needs to be believable.”
AH: It was actually very difficult to make these people not look too good. [laughs] That was honestly my biggest artistic challenge.
How do you go about staging intimate scenes in a way that is comfortable for the actors, and to what extent does a female director entirely change the dynamic onset?
LL: Alli made it very clear in the beginning that we’re doing this together, and that we should be able to talk about anything with her. Even though we had an intimacy coordinator who was super-great, it wasn’t like she needed to be there so that we could talk about certain things. We could talk with Alli about everything, and that was our guiding light that we had from the beginning and throughout the whole shoot. It has been very special to work together.
EK: Alli has also taken us into the creative process, so that when we started doing the movie, I had a very clear picture of the visuality and the themes.
I laughed so hard when Mimmi said that she’d rather see a live-action Disney remake than do something similarly regrettable. I could certainly relate.
AM: [laughs] We wondered if that line would be specific enough for people to understand, especially in Finland, but then we decided to leave it in.
AH: It was written partly in English, because the characters use a lot of English in the slang, so you couldn’t really understand what she was saying. “Disney live action remake” is really difficult, but then we translated it into Finnish. It’s a line that was specific to Mimmi, who is very sarcastic, very intelligent and very into film.
What has the experience been like of attending this festival online? Eleonoora recently put up a great Instagram post about how the “spaceship” where guests can mingle virtually has triggered the sort of social awkwardness one commonly feels during adolescence.
EK: Yeah, because I am a very talkative and bubbly person, and for me it is easy to communicate with people. But on the “spaceship,” you just stand there and you have this little face with an expression that isn’t very clear. So when you go up to someone and say, “Hello, nice to meet you,” it feels weird.
AH: One thing that is very handy with that, though, is that you never have to lie that you’re going to get another drink or use the bathroom. [laughs]
AM: I think this sort of technology is horrible in how it makes you so self-conscious. Right now, as we’re speaking with you, we are seeing ourselves! I’m not only talking to you—I’m talking to my own mirror. It’s like if we were talking face to face and we each had a mirror in front of us that forced us to look at ourselves simultaneously. [laughs]. Social media is also a powerful tool that makes you feel a lot of pressure in regards to how you look and how you portray yourself.
AH: I will say, however, that Tabitha Jackson made me realize with her very wise words in an article that there is a really wonderful aspect of democracy in having this festival online. First of all, Sundance is so much more approachable for people who couldn’t afford to go to Sundance and stay at the lodges in Park City. The second thing is that when I am attending a director’s mixer, for example, I see everybody Zooming in from the Ukraine, Mexico, Cuba, Slovenia, anywhere in the world. We are all in different time zones and we all have our ridiculous ring light, our everyday backgrounds, our headphones and our somewhat clunky connections. It puts people on a level playing field where there is no stage or audience. We are simply a community getting together, and I really like that aspect of it. I’ve been talking to a bunch of agents lately, and instead of walking into their nice LA office, I’m at their house, looking at the rather uninteresting white wall behind them. There is something nice about that.