Puberty Blues Review

All Debbie (Nell Schofield) and Sue (Jad Capelja) live for is the beach. But not just any of Sydney’s beaches – the beach, Greenhill Beach, where the really cool surfer guys and their girls hang out. Debbie and Sue make their way in by ingratiating themselves with the surfer girls at school. But once part of the in-group, they realise that all is not what it seemed. Not being allowed to surf themselves (because girls don’t do that), they are expected to be virtual slaves to their boyfriends’ every need, and be ready to provide sex on demand. Debbie and Sue set about trying to change a few things…

Puberty Blues is based on a semi-autobiographical novel by Kathy Lette and Gabrielle Carey, written when both were teenagers. It’s a mixed bag of a film. On the plus side, It’s sensitive and commendably frank about coming of age, and first sexual experiences, with an accuracy that may make you wince at times. The feminist-lite slant makes it a bit different from the usual sun, sea and surf frolics. However, its overall impact is underwhelming. The films’ weaknesses derive from the Margaret Kelly’s script, which tends towards the episodic. Individual scenes are very well observed, but the film doesn’t have a firm enough structure (a not uncommon problem with Australian films of this time, whatever their other merits) and there are flat stretches in between the highlights. The final scene, which should have audiences cheering, falls a little flat as a result. The film looks very good, especially when Beresford’s then-regular DP Don McAlpine’s work is shown in its intended ratio, and Bruce Beresford gets good performances out of his cast, many of them teenagers who hadn’t acted before. (Or since: Jad Capelja, whose name is misspelled on the front cover of this DVD, has only one other entry on the IMDB.) There are some familiar names amongst the adults, for example Charles Tingwell as the headmaster. Tim Finn’s title song becomes irritating after a while, though.

Bruce Beresford started his career with broad “ocker” comedies such as The Adventures of Barry McKenzie and its sequel. However, he had previously shown an ability to tackle more female-oriented subject matter with The Getting of Wisdom so he doesn’t seem too out of place here. He occasionally overemphasises the obvious (such as pulling focus on a sign that says BOYSWORLD) and descends into crassness by cutting a close-up of a hot dog into Debbie’s clumsy and painful defloration. Beresford has had a long and prolific career, but it’s hard to find much in common between his films apart from a rather faceless efficiency and craftsmanship. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, of course…but it does mean that he is only as good as his material. Stronger scripts are the making of his best work, such as Don’s Party and Breaker Morant from the previous decade.

Puberty Blues did well in its native country, less well overseas. Perhaps its subject matter was too Australian for people overseas to relate to, and some of the surfie lingo (“fish-face moll”, “rooting machine” and so on) too much of a stumbling block. Some of this slang plays over the menus, and there are a couple of text pages in the extras menu explaining what panel vans and chiko rolls are.

The film was shot in 2.35:1 and this DVD preserves that aspect ratio in an anamorphic transfer. Back in the early 80s, Australian filmmakers were allowed to shoot in Scope via anamorphic lenses (Super 35 wasn’t invented until a few years later) and compose for the whole frame. Nowadays, anamorphic-lensed films almost always have to be composed for TV in mind, so that nothing important is lost when panned and scanned. That isn’t the case with this film: Beresford does use the whole of the wide screen, and I wouldn’t recommend trying to watch a cropped version. The shots of the beach during the credits look a little faded – they may be stock footage. However, a few minutes in, the picture suddenly becomes sharper and the colours bolder, taking its cue from the deep and widely exposed tans of much of the cast. The transfer does have its soft moments, but it’s generally pleasing and I didn’t notice much in the way of artefacting. Madman, who did the DVD authoring, maintain their high standards here, though they seem only to go in for anamorphic transfers with Scope films like this one.

Stereo sound hadn’t really arrived in Australia in 1981, and so Puberty Blues was released with a mono soundtrack, and that’s what you get here. It’s the original soundtrack (remixing mono originals isn’t always a good idea), so no complaints…but it’s somehow underwhelming, thin and lacking a little in dynamic range. To make this worse, the Umbrella Entertainment ident has a Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack.

There are fourteen chapter stops accessible via a menu that you have to advance a chapter at a time rather than selecting the one you want. Excellent though many of the DVDs distributed by the AV Channel are, it’s regrettable that they don’t provide subtitles. The hard of hearing and anyone else likely to be daunted by strong Aussie accents and slang will be in for a difficult time.

The major extra is an interview with Schofield and Beresford, running 12:51 and 16:9 anamorphic. Star and director are filmed by a waterfront, occasionally together but mostly speaking separately to camera. You can play the whole interview from beginning to end, or select each participant. This is fairly lightweight stuff, though it does go into some detail into how Beresford read the original book, and how difficult casting was (Schofield was actually from Melbourne: they couldn’t find a lead actress from Sydney). Beresford finishes by commending the DVD for showing the whole of the intended picture. (His memory’s at fault, though. Puberty Blues wasn’t his first Scope film – Barry McKenzie Holds His Own was.)

The remaining extras include the theatrical trailer (running 2:11) which is, like the feature, in 2.35:1 anamorphic. It’s also full of spoilers, as is the way of these things. The stills gallery is better designed than the chapters menu, comprising two pages of nine thumbnails. You can also navigate it from beginning to end if you wish. There are also four pages of contemporary Australian reviews, publication details of the novel plus biographies of Lette (another of whose novels, Mad Cows, was filmed with reputedly dire results) and Carey and a Beresford filmography that’s up to date to 2002. Finally, “Umbrella Propaganda” is a set of four trailers for films currently released or forthcoming from Umbrella Entertainment: Malcolm, The Big Steal, The Club (another Beresford film), Ghosts…of the Civil Dead and Dating the Enemy.

Puberty Blues isn’t a bad film, though it will probably mean more to Australians, and particularly Sydneysiders, than anyone else. It comes to DVD with a good transfer and some reasonable extras, though it’s not the best package to come out from the AV Channel.

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