'Girl Picture' Review: A Charming, Irresistible Coming-Of-Age Story [Sundance]

If you’ve never been to Sundance before, you can expect a lot of fresh features from oft-marginalized directors and — at least these days — films shot with square aspect ratios. “Girl Picture,” a delightful, Finnish coming-of-age tale by the director Alli Haapasalo, fulfills both criteria. The film oozes with cool, and not just because of its hipstery cinematography: its soundtrack, snappy editing, and abundant teen vivacity make this an undeniable crowd-pleaser. It’s no wonder “Girl Picture” won the festival’s Audience Award for dramatic world cinema. Even when this film is a bit too neat, it’s still totally irresistible.

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The film follows best friends Mimmi (Aamu Milonoff) and Rönkkö (Eleonoora Kauhanen) as they learn to open themselves up to intimacy. Mimmi finds herself falling for — and also cruelly pushing away — a neurotic figure skater named Emma (Linnea Leino), while Rönkkö is on a possibly fruitless quest for sexual pleasure. Mimmi tries to resist self-alienation, Rönkkö struggles to let her guard down, and the two compare notes every Friday as they work the smoothie kiosk at the local mall. Emma also gets her own arc as she tries to undo a lifelong perfectionist streak. As the girls learn to open themselves up more, they become more at one with each other and the world. This shift is particularly dramatic for Mimmi, who begins the film by injuring a classmate over a P.E. disagreement.

“Girl Picture” feels exciting and new despite these oft-tread themes. Its lesbian love story is angsty without the usual tropes — nobody is afraid to come out or struggling to find the right label here — and its depictions of adolescent sexuality are honest and dramatically charged rather than shallowly comedic or exploitative. Screenwriters Ilona Ahti and Daniela Hakulinen have crafted a world that is specific but not too narrow — though it could stand to include a few more people of color — and Haapasalo, along with cinematographer Jarmo Kiuru, brings it to vibrant, picturesque life. Every interior, even random boys’ apartments, is gorgeous, as if poised for a TikTok tagged #interiordesign. Perfume Genius’s “Slip Away” crashes into its chorus just as one of the couples leans in for their first kiss. (You might recognize the song from “Booksmart.” Perhaps in another nod to Olivia Wilde’s acclaimed coming-of-age romp, “Girl Picture” also shows one of its protagonists vomiting on her love interest’s face.)

But this film wouldn’t be nearly as pleasing without its cast. Leino carries Emma with breathtaking rawness, particularly in the ice skating scenes. Though Mimmi tries to implode all of her relationships, she’s more lovable than frustrating, thanks to a canny performance from Milonoff. But Kauhanen — a newcomer to the big screen — is perhaps the film’s standout, bubbling over with charm in even the most cringeworthy scenes.

Though the film occasionally feels too perfect, particularly at the end, when every conflict is brushed aside for a photo finish, viewers may find that purity refreshing. Though stories of adolescent female suffering are certainly important, in that they can validate the trauma that patriarchy works hard to keep quiet, it’s also nice to see these young women catch a break. Films like Eliza Hittman’s “Never Rarely Sometimes Always” and fellow Sundance 2022 competitor “Palm Trees and Power Lines” exist to speak the unspeakable into existence. “Girl Picture” exists so that you can watch a girl call her best friend a goddess and a supernova at a smoothie stand where one of the drinks is called “It Takes Two to Mango.” [A-]

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