Cropped out of “Girl Picture” are the angsty awkwardness and crippling self-doubt that usually plague cinema’s teens as the training wheels of adolescence are removed. In a way, that makes director Alli Haapasalo’s up-tempo light drama a refreshing spin on a familiar genre, as it presents an attractively bouncy, perhaps even aspirational portrait of not-terribly-painful Gen-Z growing pains. But as much as the trio make for pleasant company as they navigate a benevolent passage into adulthood, Ilona Ahti and Daniela Hakulinen’s screenplay never really grips; it’s hard to generate much real tension with characters one never truly worries about, who are going to be able to solve most of their problems with a quick heart-to-heart or an oversized-knitwear hug.
A likable portrait of three young Finns chasing down their sexual and romantic awakenings with an emotional frankness that would be enviable in women twice their age, “Girl Picture” starts out on an atypically fractious note. We first meet Mimmi (Aamu Milonoff), who establishes her rebel-outsider credentials by having bleached eyebrows and lashing out disproportionately at a classmate during gym class. But whatever hormonal surliness this implies quickly dissipates when she’s with her prettily dimpled best friend Rönkkö (Eleonoora Kauhanen), which is almost all of the rest of the time — after this opening it’s easy to forget the girls are high-schoolers, so rarely do we see them in that environment again. Instead, Mimmi and Rönkkö are mostly shown hanging out, in clubs or at the mall smoothie stand where they have their after-school jobs or in Mimmi’s funky bedroom prepping for that night’s party. They borrow each other’s clothes, apply each other’s eyeliner and calm each other’s qualms.
Early on, Rönkkö confides in her bestie her main — perhaps only — source of dissatisfaction: While she’s been (hetero)sexually active for some time, she has never yet found sex particularly fulfilling. Mimmi tells her quite sensibly that “Someone our age saying they’ll never find love is the biggest cliché,” and thereafter Rönkkö’s after-hours experiments with various young men become relegated to the status of lightly humorous subplot. The encounters go awry, as with one potential partner who objects to Rönkkö’s too-specific direction, whining “Reading a manual for your genitals isn’t exactly a turn-on.” But with each setback Rönkkö herself laudably, if slightly unbelievably, reacts mainly with frustration that another orgasm has eluded her, rather than with any deeper sense of mortification or self-consciousness.
Meanwhile, in the warm, vibrant palette of Jarmo Kiuru’s energetic cinematography, and set to a montage-friendly soundtrack of pulsing electropop beats, the main thrust of the story coalesces around the burgeoning love affair between Mimmi and Emma (Linnea Leino), a dedicated figure skater currently in training to qualify for the European Championships. Here again, the obstacles are not what one might expect — queerness is no big deal for these remarkably self-determined young people or the very peripheral families who appear to give them all the freedom and independence they could ask for. Instead their bond is threatened by Mimmi’s fear of commitment and also her recognition that she might be a distraction for Emma, who till now has been narrowly focussed on her skating above all else. It’s a quandary that, again, could apply equally — and maybe more obviously — to a thirtysomething as to a teenager.
Will Rönkkö get her rocks off? Will Mimmi admit she’s in love? Will Emma land her lutz? Without much outlined in the way of other ambitions or outside interests, these are the main stakes laid out by “Girl Picture,” which is only saved from all-out soapiness by the authenticity of the three main performances. Whether swaying under disco lights in sequins and lipgloss or side-eyeing each other at the smoothie stand or swapping tough-love nuggets of relationship advice, Milonoff, Kauhanen and Leino are an appealing threesome with an easy, generous chemistry. And Mimmi and Rönkkö’s mutually strengthening friendship, especially, is touchingly drawn — though here again, the portrait is fond almost to a fault. Their only argument, which of course comes from a place of concern and love, hardly even qualifies as a spat before they’re in an immediate, tearfully apologetic embrace.
This warm-fuzziness, along with the delightful performances, gives Haapasalo’s film, which premiered at Sundance and was subsequently selected as Finland’s international Oscar submission, its breezy charm. But it also suggests a strangely distant perspective, on a generation portrayed as both haplessly under-experienced, yet supremely secure in their sexual and emotional identities. “We’re so young,” says Mimmi at one point, “I wouldn’t panic.” But what young person really understands their youth with that kind of maturity? Indeed, panic might be the very thing missing from “Girl Picture,” a coming-of-age story in which everyone, in almost every way that matters, seems to have come of age quite some time prior.