This week, Sofia Coppola’s “The Bling Ring” features a group of young people, mostly female, who break into the homes of the rich and famous to steal their stuff, mostly for kicks. You can read our full review here, and while of course it’s a movie about celebrity obsession and the ennui of youthful privilege, it can also, in its central female characters and group dynamic, be read as an evolution of a subgenre with a decades-long spotty history: the bad girl gang movie.
As much of a fascination as cinema may have always had with the “bad girl” (the temptress, the prostitute, the adulteress, the vamp, the tramp, the scarlet woman, the moll, and lord knows how many other Theda Bara/Louise Brooks-style archetypes we could quote), it wasn’t until the emergence of teen culture in the 1950s that we saw this new offshoot really grow it wings. Combining all the potentially salacious and provocative attractions of the bad girl but multiplying them and magnifying them through the prism of herd mentality and competitiveness (basically sticking the whole lot in a peer-pressure-cooker), it’s no wonder that the earliest clear examples come in the form of exploitation cinema. Cheapie films made to fuel the confused imaginings of hormonal teen boys and to provide drive-in crowds with a suggestive backdrop for their necking sessions, “Girl Gang” led the rush in 1954, quickly followed by, among others, Roger Corman’s “Teenage Doll” (1957), “Girls on the Loose” (1958), and to our personal favorite title, “Teenage Gang Debs” (1966, trailer here), and a whole slew of other (now often near-unwatchably Z-grade) knock-offs.
But as times changed, so did the movies. While exploitation thrived underground, back upstairs in the mainstream, the concept began to make itself felt to the point that today, from cliquish high-schoolers to career criminals, the bad girl gang has countless cinematic examples. We've drawn up a list of 20, from films that vary wildly in quality -- but of course “bad” is a relative term. In fact across all these films and “The Bling Ring” too, what marks these females apart is not so much that they are evil (in many cases in fact they’re totally justified in their actions) but that they derive their moral compass not from society in general but from their internal group dynamic. In other words, they do what they do, and screw everyone else -- an attitude we might not like, but can't help but sneakingly admire.
"Spring Breakers" (2013)
Harmony Korine’s hypnotic, neon-glowing pop odyssey is the next generation of bad girl, with the eponymous foursome deciding to hell with morality, and strapping on some weapons to turn this into the most lawless vacation in the world. Most wrote Korine’s film off as mindless cheesecake missing the idea that these girls were operating almost entirely of their own agency, even as regards to sex (as much as they talk about sexual liberation, they never actually have intercourse until the end of the film). Korine finds his trademark delicately indelicate way of establishing these girls’ relationships to each other, to their peers and ultimately to hip-hop, which they come to as though blinded by the grille of James Franco’s Alien. Eventually they graduate from pedestrian street crime to knocking off a drug lord, always playing with and often subverting notions of victimhood and power, ultimately creating a sociologically queasy reading of the indulgence and hedonism of modern spring break. But the point is made, clearly and succinctly, that Korine’s fierce foursome hold all the cards, never victims, and not saps, in spite of their materialist self-interest. [B+]
“The Craft” (1996)
In its way, “The Craft” is as emblematic of the '90s as any of the more famous movies from the period, in no small part down to the presence of stalwarts of the teen genre like Neve Campbell, Skeet Ulrich, Robin Tunney and Breckin Meyer. The plot is ripped straight from the pages of Teen-Drama 101: Troubled new girl Sarah (Tunney) has just moved to Los Angeles with her father and stepmother. She forms a friendship with a group of girls: Bonnie (Campbell), Nancy (Fairuza Balk) and Rochelle (Rachel True). At the same time, Sarah becomes attracted to the popular Chris (Ulrich). The twist -- tapping directly into the brief trend for witchcraft and all things gothic that went on around at the time -- is that the girl gang are actually witches and Sarah has secret supernatural powers which the girls believe will complete their coven and make them all-powerful. Unlike other more knowing teen movies like “Clueless” and “Heathers," “The Craft” does suffer from taking itself a bit too seriously, a condition which afflicts many teenagers, especially perhaps the kind of dilettante goths the film was vigorously trying to attract. The soundtrack is great though, and amidst all the doe-eyed mooning from the likes of Tunney and Campbell (who became the '90s starlet du jour on the back of this) is a pretty stonking turn from Fairuza Balk, breaking away from her child-star roots with a smoky and poisonous little performance. Silly, it may be, and with some ropey special-effects, but you better believe there were gangs of pale, dark-eyed girls all over the country earnestly performing love spells in their bedrooms after they saw this movie. [C+/B-]
“Thelma & Louise” (1991)
Beyond the hilarity of seeing Chief Wiggum and Homer celebrate an “old fashioned car chase” by listening to "Sunshine Lollipops and Rainbows," the classic Simpsons episode “Marge on the Lam” was proof that Ridley Scott’s feminist take on the outlaws on the run genre had quickly seeped into our pop culture consciousness, and its place there is deserved. Geena Davis and Susan Sarandon play the titular characters who go on the run after killing an asshole rapist, and from there the life of crime becomes a freeing, empowering statement for the pair as they fight against the male-dominated world that holds them back. The message may be broad and a little on the nose, but Scott’s direction, along with excellent performances from the leads (not to mention the ace supporting cast, and Brad Pitt’s career-changing cameo), cohere to make for one satisfying, tragic but oddly uplifting film. Nowadays, “Thelma & Louise” is yet another stark example of Scott’s more interesting early career, one which we're afraid he’s left behind for bigger budgets and dumber scripts. [A]
Harken back to 2003. It was a time when Rachel McAdams was known as the girl in that Rob Schneider body-switching movie “The Hot Chick,” "fetch" was not going to take off, and Lindsay Lohan was a Hollywood starlet on the rise, known for her Disney family-friendly films and stealing Aaron Carter from Hilary Duff (very shocking stuff!). In 2004, “Mean Girls” cemented Lohan as a force to be reckoned with, launched Amanda Seyfried’s career and went on to become a fun footnote when Rachel McAdams found real fame in “The Notebook.” Emblematic of a generation marked by cliquishness and well, mean girls, the Plastics ruled the school, being an updated A-squad – bitchier than the Pink Ladies without the comeuppance the Heathers got. The original Plastics (pre-Cady) consist of Karen Smith (Seyfried), whose breasts can forecast the current weather; Gretchen Weiners (Lacey Chabert), whose “hair is so big, it’s full of secrets”; and Queen Bee Regina George (McAdams), or as Janis Ian (Lizzy Caplan) puts it, “evil takes human form.” Funnily enough, Lindsay Lohan turned down the role of Regina in favor of Cady, as she was worried that it was just mean enough to damage her career. As a girl gang, the Plastics tick off most of the checklist (exclusive, hot, mean) and even have a Burn Book that is in line with their general personas and what we all remember from high school (although your popular clique probably wasn’t as bitingly funny). The twist is that through public shaming and an incident with a school bus, the Plastics actually learn and grow by the end, becoming functional members of the high school ecosystem (Regina becomes a lacrosse star, Karen is the school weather girl, Gretchen joins a more appreciative clique, and Cady becomes a mathlete) and giving hope for us all [B+]
"Runaway Daughters" (1994)
Part of an incredible, wholly unrecognized series of made-for-Showtime remakes of classic American International Pictures B-movies called "Rebel Highway," Joe Dante's "Runaway Daughters," scripted by his "Matinee"/"Gremlins 2: The New Batch" collaborator Charlie Haas, is a remake that retains the original's period setting and general atmosphere while also subversively updating for the aforementioned made-for-Showtime audience. The girl gang in question is led by Julie Bowen, Holly Fields and Jenny Lewis (yes, THAT Jenny Lewis), who run away from the authorities and their town's straight-laced moral enforcers after one of them claims to be pregnant. It's a fun, micro-budgeted romp, one that reunites much of the cast of Dante's "The Howling" (including Dee Wallace, Robert Picardo, Dick Miller and Christopher Stone) and features a candy-colored, '50s-lite aesthetic that still allows for notions of feminism and individuality. Like everything else Dante does, his winking never gets in the way of the story, and on this evidence as regards period, it's a shame that he and Haas were never able to make their real period epic: "Termite Terrace," about the animators at Warner Bros. who created Bugs Bunny and the gang -- they were also a bunch of outsiders who wanted to change things, except with pencils instead of switchblades. "Runaway Daughters" is definitely worth tracking down, as are a number of the other "Rebel Highway" entries (Robert Rodriguez's entry, "Roadracers," just got released in a deluxe Blu-ray edition). [A-]