Treadmill Theater Presents: LITTLE DARLINGS Review
Title: Little Darlings
Release Date : 03/21/80
Director: Ronald F. Maxwell
Starring: Tatum O’Neal, Kristy McNichol, Armand Assante, and Matt Dillon
Actual Gross: $34,326,249
Adjusted Gross (2013): $102,723,500
1980 Box Office Rank: 20
Little Darlings tells the tale of rich girl Ferris (O’Neal) and street tough Angel (McNichol), two 15-year-olds who are attending the same summer camp. By the time the big yellow bus gets them there (after they have a brief fistfight on the bus), the other girls joining them at camp recognize the two as the alpha females of the bunch and pit them against each with a high-stakes wager: of the two, whoever loses her virginity first is the “winner.” Ferris sets her sights on seducing girls’ camp counselor Gary (Assante), while Angel looks to the boys’ camp and fellow camper Randy (Dillon).
Having not seen this since it ran on cable in the early 1980s, I went into it expecting the usual ’80s teen sex comedy. Imagine my surprise when instead I got a decent teen drama, especially in the third act.
The film starts out slowly and rather clichéd, particularly with its rich girl vs. poor girl characterization and some goofy summer camp antics (complete with a food fight). But it does a couple of smart things. First, it never makes the girls sex objects (with the exception of an exploitative couple of shots of the girls in general, not O’Neal and McNichol specifically). In fact, one early scene turns the tables of traditional ’80s teen sex fare and has the girls spying on the boys as the boys skinny-dip. Second, the financial dichotomy between Angel and Ferris never comes into play again, proving its sole purpose is to illustrate that the problems the girls face know no economic exceptions.
The first two acts plod along a bit, stretching longer than necessary and feeling like the movie could have been better suited as a shorter after-school special. (In fact, the score is very made-for-1970s-TV.) But in the third act, the film turns into a strong drama that deals – head on – with issues of actions, their consequences, and how those actions not only affect the perception of the leads in the eyes of the other girls, but how the leads perceive themselves. McNichol is the standout in Act III, and throughout the whole film, there isn’t a camera angle that doesn’t love O’Neal. All of the other girls in the film, though, are mostly forgettable, and the ending is a little too tidy. Ultimately I’d call the film more of a distant cousin to the later teen sex comedies of the ’80s that built their plots around T&A, only because this film contains teens dealing with sex.
Despite O’Neal’s Oscar win for 1973’s Paper Moon and her funny turn in 1976’s The Bad News Bears, she never found great success after this in her film career, but has had some luck on TV. McNichol, who parlayed her success on TV’s Family into a film career, never saw that career gain much traction. She had another hit TV show (Empty Nest) in the late ’80s/early ’90s, but has been all but missing since the late ’90s. Oddly enough, Assante and Dillon have gone on to lengthy and successful careers. But oddest of all is director Maxwell, who did little else in the ’80s but has since written, narrated, and/or directed four films about the American Civil War, including the 1993 epic Gettysburg.
Little Darlings, which finished 20th at the box office in 1980, topping such critical greats as The Elephant Man (25th) and Raging Bull (27th), is a key entry in the teen sex comedy sub-genre, but is kept from being a film of great consequence because it simply takes too long to get to its best parts.
Treadmill Distance: 4.46 miles. Treadmill Time: 94:08.
About Treadmill Theater: In November of 2013, I decided to motivate myself to exercise by modifying my basement so that I could watch a movie while on the treadmill. It went well, although not consistently enough. With 2014 anew, I thought it was time to get serious. Throughout the year, I’ll be watching films with the following theme: Yearly Top 20 Domestic Box Office Grossers for each year of the 1980s. (All Box Office data courtesy of BoxOfficeMojo.com.) I will then offer my thoughts on each film here.