Sundance 2022 has proven ripe with movies about women’s issues. With both a documentary and a feature film about the Janes (a network of underground abortion clinics in 1960s Chicago), the charming and sex-positive Good Luck to You, Leo Grande, and a slew of other female-focused narratives, the festival has provided a home for numerous interpretations of the female experience. One that continues that theme, although which has seemingly slipped through the cracks, is Finnish director Alli Haapasalo’s Girl Picture. Just as its title implies, it is a portrait of girls' lives. Largely plotless, the movie documents three Fridays in the lives of teenagers Mimmi, Rönkkö, and Emma.
There is no shortage of teen movies about sexual discovery in the market, but Haapasalo’s tender lens creates a really healthy environment for their expeditions. There is no sexualization or sensationalism in the dramas; the girls have an opportunity to look themselves in the mirror and figure out who they want to be, void of a crude gaze that might belittle their internal conflicts.
Mimmi’s queerness is as casual as it could be, and allowing that aspect of her identity to flourish gives ample time for her to figure out her interrelational weaknesses. Her and Emma’s sexual identities bear no weight in the movie’s tale, which is remarkably refreshing in a genre that so often exploits same-sex couples for tragedy and depictions of societal scorn. Rather, Mimmi has to learn to channel her frustrations with her mother’s neglect into something productive that doesn’t see her pushing away those who do love her. And Emma needs to find her own reasons to love ice skating; her preoccupation with perfection has been instilled in her for fourteen years, and she must come to terms with whether it’s all been worth it.
Meanwhile, Rönkkö is unable to connect. The movie doesn’t blame her for her difficulty in finding joy in sexual encounters. Even a character that’s largely set up to be the “solution” to her intimacy issues doesn’t quite work out. She is not guided by the yearning for an epiphany: she just doesn’t know what she likes, and that’s okay. You’re not supposed to have it all figured out at 17. The relational explorations she partakes in grant her room to grow. She finds no perfect mix of assertive and “chill,” and although her scenes often generate the most secondhand embarrassment, it’s primarily at the stake of her partners who are not considerate enough to discuss her sexual frustration before engaging.
Girl Picture is shot dynamically, and with its fair share of long takes. Strobe, fairy, and street lights shine upon the portrait of reckless youth. There’s a particularly captivating scene of Mimmi watching Emma perform her ice skating dance on an empty street at midnight that sells their augmenting infatuation in no short order. Things escalate quickly, but organically. Aamu Milonoff could have chemistry with a rock, and she gives one of the best youth performances of the entire fest.
Girl Picture is, in a lot of ways, girl heaven. Haapasalo loves her characters and treats them with the utmost dignity and respect despite the sticky situations they end up in. It preaches love and community and making room for yourself in your own life. While it may not reinvent the genre, it should rank as one of the most wholesome representations of women and queer women put to film. Its boundless empathy is well noted; here’s to hoping it gets the attention it deserves.