Since the success of My Brilliant Career (1979), Gillian Armstrong has become somewhat synonymous with period cinema, an association borne out by her subsequent Hollywood work (Mrs Soffel, 1984; Little Women, 1994) and international co-productions (Oscar and Lucinda, 1997; Charlotte Gray, 2001; Death Defying Acts, 2007). However, Armstrong’s subsequent entirely home-grown fiction features – Starstruck (1982), High Tide (1987), and The Last Days of Chez Nous (1992) – are all contemporary-set, which speaks to her resistance to heritage film typecasting on the one hand and, on the other, Hollywood’s tendency under the logic of capitalism to typecast directors on the basis of their greatest successes. Yet both threads of Armstrong’s feature filmography are united in their focus on female protagonists and women’s stories, trials, and tribulations, and can be characterised as late 20th/early 21st century variations on the Hollywood “woman’s film” of the 1930s and ‘40s, albeit with an Antipodean flavour and grit in her Australian work. One can imagine Bette Davis in the titular role of Charlotte Gray, or Joan Crawford essaying the protagonist of High Tide.
It is curious that Starstruck, one of last year’s Cinematheque titles, ended with ingénue Jackie Mullens’ (Jo Kennedy) singing her way to stardom in Sydney’s iconic Opera House, while Armstrong’s next Australian feature – High Tide, screening this year – opens with its protagonist Lillie (Judy Davis) playing the third banana backup singer to an Elvis impersonator (Frankie J. Holden) in chintzy gigs at unglamorous regional clubs. The passage of time can be both benevolent and cruel, a theme evident in Armstrong’s documentary Fourteen’s Good, Eighteen’s Better (1980). The film is the second in a 7-Up-esque documentary series following the lives of three Adelaide women that commenced with Smokes and Lollies (1976) and continued with Bingo, Bridesmaids and Braces (1988), Not Fourteen Again (1996) and Love, Lust and Lies (2009). Like Armstrong’s locally-made post-My Brilliant Career fictional features, these are women-centred, contemporary-set, and their preoccupations are topical.
Kerry McDonnell is currently living at home and learning to drive. She has broken off an engagement, and works at a stationary company. Josie Armstrong is a single mother of two young children on a pension, who has already been married and divorced. And Diana Doman is pregnant and contentedly married to the older Keith, who has been taken to court on an assault charge. Fourteen’s Good, Eighteen’s Better focuses on Kerry, Josie, and Diana at age 18, with footage of the girls at 14 incorporated from Armstrong’s earlier documentary.
The title of Armstrong’s precursor documentary, Smokes and Lollies, hints at the combination of innocence (lollies) and testing boundaries (smokes) characteristic of the early teen years. In contrast, the title Fourteen’s Good, Eighteen’s Better appears less symbolic, more a straightforward statement of opinion or fact. However, as Armstrong’s documentary evinces, things are a bit more complicated than that. The faux-punk theme song accompanying the documentary – written by Elizabeth Drake and Jan Cornall and sung by Jay of The Teeny Weenys – declares “When I’m older, I can do what I like”, but this does not necessarily prove true. All three young women, despite their greater independence at 18, are constrained in certain ways, whether by family, relationships, transportation, finances, or gender roles within early-1980s Australia, as documented in the film.
The film provides a snapshot of 1980s suburban Adelaide and the fleeting fashions and fads of the moment – arcade games, the aforementioned faux-punk tune – as well as capturing these women and their lives at this milestone age. Of the key players, Kerry gets shortest shrift in terms of screen-time; her footage appears early in the documentary and she is largely absent from the second half. This is perhaps understandable, both structurally and dramatically, given the larger stakes of Josie’s relationship with her children and Diana’s marriage and her husband’s court appearance. The most autonomous of the three, Kerry believes she is faring a lot better at 18 than 14 because she was “a lot sillier then”. While all three women are more mature than their 14-year old selves, they are not necessarily as mature as they regard themselves, and their comments and insights, while peppered with wisdom, also exhibit their youthful naiveté. But this adds to the film’s authenticity as a chronicle of three individuals at this key life juncture, and Armstrong is non-judgmental and respectful of their developing worldviews. Though their daily routines are sometimes mundane and pedestrian, and Diana in particular alludes to boredom, humane and humorous moments are documented as well, and Fourteen’s Good, Eighteen’s Better is likeable and very watchable as a portrait of coming of age … a process that never really ends.
Fourteen’s Good, Eighteen’s Better (1981 Australia 48 minutes)
Prod. Co: The Big Picture Company, M & L Pty Limited, Film Australia Prod: Hilary Linstead, Gillian Armstrong, Timothy Read Dir: Gillian Armstrong Scr: Gillian Armstrong Phot: Malcolm Richards, Kerry Brown, Tom Cowan Ed: Sarah Bennett, Jane Hänckel Prod: Lutz Hengst, Peter Märthesheimer Mus: Elizabeth Drake
Cast: Kerry McDonnell, Diana Doman, Josie Armstrong