Fearless, ruthlessly economical and deeply felt, 2 Friends (1986), Jane Campion’s first feature – actually made for Australian television, and clocking in at a spare 79 minutes – is a modest yet accomplished film, and a stunning debut. Working from a screenplay by Helen Garner, Campion traces in reverse the lives of two young Australian schoolgirls, Kelly (Kris Bidenko) and Louise (Emma Coles) from the collapse of their friendship back to its promising beginning, when all things seemed possible, and the world was bright and new. Of course, this told-in-reverse format has been used in a number of other films, most notably Christopher Nolan’s Memento (2000), but Campion’s tale is told from a female perspective and uses this unusual narrative strategy to tap into the experience of female friendships, and, in particular, the difficulties young bright women have navigating a world than is not designed for their success.
As Elbert Ventura notes in a perceptive essay on the film in Popmatters,
when the movie begins, Louise and Kelly don’t even seem to belong in the same story. Louise is a prim, sullen teenager in a resolutely middle-class household. Dressed in her schoolgirl uniform, she hardly looks the sort who runs with Kelly, all punk and dissolute. Kelly, we learn, has left home—Louise hasn’t seen her in ages—and has been living with “friends” in poverty in a desolate beach town. The movie’s opening chapter ends with an eloquent scene. As Louise reads a letter from the long-departed Kelly, Kelly’s voiceover comes on the soundtrack. Halfway through, Louise drops the missive, but Kelly’s voice remains, reciting the letter. It’s a poignant expression of a friendship past exhaustion.1
But how did their friendship unravel? Campion takes us from this bleak beginning back roughly a year, in five sections, to show how uncaring parents, and in particular families split apart by divorce and remarriage, have brought this rupture about. At the same time, the film is resolutely and revolutionarily feminist, in the purest sense of the word; it’s told entirely from a female perspective, and the men and boys who drift through the film are either weak, predatory, or as the girls describe them in one scene, “hopeless.”
As we move back in time, it becomes clear that the punked-out Kelly was once a gifted student with university potential, having passed along with Louise the extremely difficult entrance exam for the exclusive City Girl’s School, a surefire stepping stone to higher education. But Kelly’s stepdad Malcolm (Peter Hehir) a shiftless, jealous lay about, refuses to let her attend, thus not only breaking the bond between the two girls, but also wrecking Kelly’s future with a single stroke. Kelly’s mother Chris (Debra May) seems weak and ineffectual, and Louise’s mother Janet (Kris McQuade), though seeming to care for Kelly in a maternal fashion, cannot effectively intervene. And so Louise goes off to City Girl, and Kelly winds up on the dole, living in a squat, doing drugs and wandering the streets. For a female spectator, it is acutely painful to witness, but it is also deeply satisfying to see uncomfortable truths about all young women’s lack of place in society so plainly stated; in this way 2 Friends is much like Campion’s finest film, Sweetie (1989).
Shot in utilitarian 16mm by Julian Penney on a modest budget, the film effortlessly conveys the drabness of day-to-day life for young girls not yet ready to leave home, but bursting at the bondage of family obligations, especially since home life is so unrelenting grim. As Stephen Holden notes,
the film takes a detached, almost clinical view of its two central characters who both come from broken homes. Scenes of family life with its petty squabbles, shopping expeditions, holiday celebrations and time spent watching television and talking on the telephone are so precisely observed they have the quality of cinema verité [ . . . ] Scenes in which [Louise] and Kelly hang out together, share their fantasies, go the beach and have their first bumbling flirtations with boys, capture the boredom and insecurity of early adolescence with an accuracy that is almost uncomfortable to watch.2
But what makes the film so remarkable is the depth of feeling that inhabits the work. Campion doesn’t miss the smallest detail, from telephone calls that go on too long; to bullying by students at school; to other, minor characters whose fates we will ever know; parents who have no idea who their child really is; and to top it off, the film opens with a wake for a young girl, whom we never meet, who has just overdosed on drugs, which Kelly and Louise are obliged to attend. Clearly, short of a miracle, this is where Kelly will wind up; abandoned by the system, her parents, and through no fault of her own, Louise – who has moved on to a new life.
In the film’s final, heartbreaking moments, the film bursts into a Richard Lester-style segment of visual extravagance, using stop motion, mattes, vibrant hand coloring, and other special effects to suggest the beauty and joy of Kelly and Louise’s early friendship, as they pledge undying friendship, draft a letter to the local newspaper decrying the proliferation of nuclear weapons, and seem destined for a life of female solidarity and success. And it’s on this hopeful note that the film ends.
Yet as Campion has shown us, the past is no predictor of the future, and one can’t even trust one’s own mothers to work in their best interest, as they allow the phantoms of their own past to extinguish the life in their children. During an orientation evening at City Girl’s School, Kelly and Louise are treated to a brief concert of medieval madrigals by the current students. Kelly is transported by the music and excited by the prospect of going to a good school with her friend. The school offers the promise of a way out of the everyday boredom of female existence, and Kelly can briefly see her way clear to a new life away from the family who regards her as little more than trash.
But it isn’t to be, and we’ve known it from the start. This makes this film’s final, joyous celebration of life all the harder to take, as colorful as it may be, since we know that Kelly and Louise’s friendship will end, and that a combination of family, societal, and patriarchal forces will consign one girl to the scrapheap, while the other goes on without her close friend. Campion returns to the madrigal motif at the end of the film, and the recognition of female common experience that has been building up is suddenly brought forth in tears, particularly for the female spectator. Like the titular female character in Sweetie, Kelly is a young girl that has no place in a man’s world.
Even female friendship, clearly so central and valued by Campion, is snuffed out by a society that does value young girls for anything beyond their outward appearance. This is made clear throughout the film, but perhaps most acutely when a friend of Kelly’s stepfather nearly sexually assaults her, after her stepfather abandons Kelly in his apartment to run out for a “hot date.” 2 Friends is a tour de force for Campion, and was screened in the Un Certain Regard section at the 1986 Cannes Film Festival – and Campion’s career took off. But along with Sweetie, 2 Friends remains one of Campion’s most heartfelt and feminist films – and a real discovery.
2 Friends (1986 Australia 79 minutes)
Prod Co: ATV Prod: Jan Chapman Dir: Jane Campion Scr: Helen Garner Phot: Julian Penney Ed: Bill Russo Prod Des: Janet Patterson Mus: Martin Armiger
Cast: Kris Bidenko, Emma Coles, Kris McQuade, Peter Hehir, Kerry Dwyer, Stephen Leeder, Debra May, John Sherrin, Sean Travers.
- Elbert Ventura, “Two Friends (1986),” Popmatters 3 November 2002 http://www.popmatters.com/review/two-friends/. ↩
- Stephen Holden, “Two Buddies Whose Family Life Is the Nemesis,” The New York Times April 24, 1996 http://www.nytimes.com/movie/review?res=9C03E2D81F39F937A15757C0A960958260 ↩