Top Spot Review
Six teenage girls aged somewhere between fourteen and sixteen are growing up in the English seaside town of Margate, all of whom have a story to tell. Via interviews to camera, in moments snatched from their lives and in their dreams, these six girls are both confessional and confrontational; honest one minute, misleading the next. Helen (Helen Laker) falls in love with a guy she met at the Dreamland funfair who she snogged and who fingered her for the first time but Katie (Kate Foster-Barnes) tells of being raped on New Year's Eve. Lizzie (Elizabeth Crawford) says to her interviewer (Emin, offscreen) that it doesn't matter if she gets called a slag whilst Frances (Frances Williams) avoids talking about being sexually abused. From the summer of one year through the winter and into the following spring, these six girls experience times both good and bad before a secret tears their small group apart.
That introduction probably makes Top Spot sound much more thrilling than it actually is, hinting at a secret within the small group of six teenagers. But for anyone who's grown up with sisters or in a co-educational school, teenage girls are masters at keeping secrets so it should come as no surprise that one out of a group of six is holding something back from the others. Secrecy is, of course, something that writer/director Tracey Emin has rarely been accused of but she would doubtless argue that it has little place in the life of an artist. Her literally-titled work Everyone I Have Ever Slept With 1963-1995 - a blue tent on which she appliqued the names of all those concerned - was considered to be an exhibit of her sexual history, whereas, with her including the name of relatives that she'd slept beside as a child, was more a piece of intimacy. Similarly, My Bed revealed her unwashed knickers, her sweat-stained sheets and used condoms and yet, while she's said that her own memories and experiences are important in her work, she's also said, "I just wish people would get on with their own lives and let me get on with mine."
Top Spot has that contradiction in that we can pick out moments in it that are clearly autobiographical whilst there are others that Emin either invented or based on others. Katie's rape, for example, is from Emin's own experiences but she's admitted that the sexual abuse of Frances is not. What we have then is not so straightforward a piece as might be expected but neither, outside of the structure of the film, is it entirely surprising. If the introduction suggests it's a film driven by the girls becoming increasingly aware of their sexuality, as well as the pitfalls therein, then that's probably a false one. Not one that's helped by Emin naming the film after a Margate nightclub - where, "We'd snog and kiss, be fingered, titted up." - and a moment when a man's penis hits the neck of a womb during intercourse.
Instead, Top Spot is a film that snatches at memories of teenage life within a freeform structure, not only as regards sex but also about education, enjoyment, parenting, trust and one's peers. There's much in the film that's very bleak, such as Katie's rape - Emin catches her after the act, when she's lying on the ground with her tights pulled down - but, moments before, she'd shown them mucking about at a fairground, riding the rollercoaster and eating ice-cream. Similarly, Helen's friends can't quite believe that she doesn't know that her Foreign Legion-boyfriend is a skinhead who's in prison but Emin portrays her within her fantasies, walking about Egypt and visiting the Sphinx and the pyramids but doing so alone, as though Helen knows the truth about her boyfriend. And yet, in spite of all the talk about their sexual experimentation and disappointments, the girls are all somewhat naive, being, like most teenagers, aware of their bodies but not of the emotional experiences that make one an adult. Helen and Frances are both romantic dreamers, whilst Lizzie's view of love is more grounded.
With that in mind, Top Spot wears its Quadrophenia influences with pride, not only in its seaside setting but also in its disappointment at the realities of growing older. Where Jimmy returned to Brighton in shock at seeing the Ace Face humbled as a bellboy, so Helen talks about visiting Egypt but, instead, throws her luggage into the sea, Kieri talks about taking revenge on the woman who gave her a lovebite and the excitement over boys ends with a pregnancy and a suicide. It's that scene, with Lizzie giving birth on her own in her bathroom at home after which she pushes the baby down the toilet and slits her wrists, that saw the film leave the offices of the BBFC with an 18 certificate, thus denying teenage girls the chance to see it. Frankly, though, excluding teenagers from this is ludicrous - it really ought to have been a 12 - as it works best to warn girls of a similar age over the danger of thinking of sex as Lizzie does, that it's free and that no one gets hurt. Her suicide does make for grim viewing - the bloodied knickers on the floor, the unnatural silence where there ought to be the sound of a newborn baby and the loneliness of it are all saddening - but it's an instructive and well-made piece of the film and certainly its most powerful. Regardless of the 18-certificate, I would have no qualms about showing this to a 13- or 14-year-old, largely because Emin has produced a film that warns of teenage pregnancy and of the foolishness of early love but which makes a strong case for education, either within schools or without.
But Top Spot ends on a high note, similar to Burgess' A Clockwork Orange, where the girls realise that there's a lot more of life to be lived, which calls for some growing up. To the tune of The Monkees' I'm A Believer, they do nothing more than paint their fingernails but they do so together, implying that after all they've been through, it's that they can still count on one another as friends that's important. Tracey may make one final flourish of a Betjamin-esque raining of bombs on Margate but it's the five girls and the sound of Jones, Nesmith, Dolenz and Tork who'll be remembered long after the film has ended, as life-affirming a sound as has made it to film.
Filmed in a mix of DV and gorgeous Super 8 - of which there's not quite enough of in movies - Top Spot isn't ever going to look as good as any recent blockbuster but it really isn't at all bad either. The DV - one assumes that she used professional equipment and not a camcorder - looks good and the DVD does a good job of capturing it's particular harshness, even when shown on a big screen where its faults ought to be evident. The Super 8 footage is lovely, though, being grainy, soft, scratchy and wobbling in the frame but capturing a sense of place and of character that DV simply can't match.
The soundtrack is equally good, breaking up the dialogue with tracks by Martina Topley-Bird, Roxy Music and, best of all, Donna Summer's I Feel Love. The music, as one might expect, sounds better than the dialogue, which is occasionally lost in the background noise but given the nature of the film, this is no loss to the overall experience. Finally, there are English subtitles.
Commentary: Given that Emin is heard in voiceover at various points in the film, it's then odd to hear her in commentary and the mix between Emin the director and Emin the interviewer doesn't always work. Otherwise, Emin isn't bad here and talks about her making of the film, the six characters and, towards the end of the film, her troubles with the BBFC but she does explain too much, which for a dreamlike film, doesn't make for a great commentary. For Top Spot, less exposition from Tracey Emin in this commentary would have been better.
Riding For A Fall (4m03s): If the thought of four minutes of Tracey Emin riding a donkey on a beach doesn't impress you, best not select this option from the Extra Features menu.
Costumes (54s): ...in which Tracey sends her cast into her local in their school uniforms to see if they'll get served. That they don't get their white wine spritzers suggests that they look ridiculously young - they don't! - or that they tried the wrong boozer.
I'm A Believer (2m47s): Over the sound of The Monkees, all of the Super 8 footage in the film is brought together in this one feature, which, as you might expect, looks and sounds terrific but is otherwise of little value.
Interview: Joss Bay 2003 (6m03s): Beginning by getting stroppy with the interview - Tracey Emin doesn't appear to want to answer any of his questions for the first minute - this soon settles down into a series of questions on regrets, innocence and her own teenage sexuality.
Finally, there is a set of Production Stills and a Tartan Trailer Reel, which contains promos for Primer, Union City and The Proposition.
What Tracey Emin does best in his film, though, is to capture the sense of isolation that must come with living in a seaside resort through the off-season. Where the main strip of Margate is no doubt bustling in the summer months, there is, one assumes, a loneliness to the place in winter that Emin does well to portray in her film.
Better still is that brings this into her characters, who, for all their teenage sass, lack confidence and tend to see a boyfriend as a cheap ride, often literally so, to happiness. As anyone who's gone there before, isn't ever the case and that's why, regardless of the certificate, Top Spot is a film for teenage girls. Granted, they may find it a touch dull and confusing but at only a little over an hour, Top Spot makes its points as might its audience - sometimes painfully direct and sometimes with little more than a, "...know what I mean?" It could, then, hardly be any more suitable for its audience.