Given the prevalence of the coming of age narrative in film and television, it is sad to say that the story staple has become a cliché. Too often appropriated by comedies and mindless TV dramas, it has become a victim of its own popularity, with quantity in inclusion different from quality in depiction. Whilst François Truffaut’s seminal debut feature The 400 Blows still remains the benchmark film of the genre, the majority of offerings resemble inane teen efforts such as The Sisterhood Of The Travelling Pants or melodramas akin to White Oleander. Indeed, the likes of Bad Education, A Guide To Recognising Your Saints and This Is England are in the minority, with films the calibre of Angus, Thongs And Perfect Snogging, Hey, Hey, It’s Esther Blueburger and even Big Mommas: Like Father, Like Son more commonly made. Representing the European perspective in the fashion of An Education, The French Kissers and Kisses, Irish effort 32A thankfully sides with the better examples of the premise, with actress-turned-filmmaker Marian Quinn (sister of Unknownactor Aidan) making her feature-length directorial debut with a film based on her own script.
Approaching her fourteenth birthday in the midst of 1979, Maeve Brennan’s (Ailish McCarthy, in her first and only film to date) life revolves around her friends and family. The former – school pals Ruth (Sophie Jo Wasson, The Clinic), Orla (Orla Long, Raw) and Claire (Riona Smith, another debutant) – share her obsession with boys and bras, whilst the latter – parents Frank (Aidan Quinn, The Eclipse) and Jean (Orla Brady, Fringe), and siblings Dessie, Donal and Sinead (first-timers Jack Kavanagh, Liam Weir and Meadhbh Ní Dhalaigh) – merely cramp her teenage style. Desperately coveting the symbols of adulthood – supportive undergarments and an older boyfriend included – Maeve happens upon both in quick succession. With her confidence considerably boosted courtesy of her lingerie, she catches the eye of local heartbreaker Brian Power (Shane McDaid, Rock Rivals), with a blossoming romance coming at the expense of her other personal relationships. As the infatuation takes its natural course, Maeve is not only forced to choose between her buddies and her boy, but left to deal with the consequences of encroaching upon adulthood when her first love fails to turn out as planned.
As its title indicates, 32A depicts the time in a girl’s life when her childhood is fading yet she’s not grown up enough to be considered an adult. It is a time of desperately wanting to be part of the in crowd, whilst equally as adamantly trying to dissociate from the embarrassing reminders of the past. In bringing Maeve’s story to the screen, Quinn effortlessly captures the in-between stage of adolescence, complete with awkwardness, uncertainty and more than a little angst. Both thoughtful and tender, as well as sweet and sincere, her film unravels as an intimate and personal journey through puberty. Boosting the naturalistic portrayal of proceedings is the disparate cast, with the combination of veteran thespians (Aidan Quinn, Brady and Mad Men‘s Jared Harris) and inexperienced youth working well. Whilst the well-known members bring a sense of seriousness, their younger counterparts are genuine in their authenticity. Together with Quinn’s simple yet substantial script, it is easy to understand the acclaim that has followed the small yet subtle feature since its 2008 premiere at the Berlin Film Festival (receiving the inaugural Tiernan McBride Award for screenwriting, as well as one win from three nominations at the 2009 Irish Film and Television Awards). Understated and accurate as well as realistic and resonant, 32A offers an intelligent and emotive look at the path a girl takes to become a woman.
32A is screening as part of the Windows On Europe film festival, currently showing at Brisbane’s Dendy Portside until February 25 before touring Sydney, Adelaide and Melbourne until April 2011.