“Fish faced moll.” “Clubbie wanker!” “Rooting machine.” Before Puberty Blues, this kind of talk only reverberated around school corridors, through suburban shopping centres and across the scorching sands of Australia’s beaches. But on our cinema screens? Never. Apart from winsome, more ethereal films like Picnic At Hanging Rock and The Getting Of Wisdom, the world of Australian teenagers was one almost wholly ignored by the cinema. Sure, we’d heard adults peeling off bad language and hotly spirited local vernacular in Don’s Party and The Club, but it wasn’t until Bruce Beresford – the director of those two classics – got behind the camera for 1981’s Puberty Blues that local teenagers found a cinematic voice. Australia might have had a few teen films prior to this (most notably The F.J Holden), but Puberty Blues was the first one to light a sizeable fire of interest, and even today remains the local industry’s truly seminal example of this often-derided genre. Raw and affecting, Puberty Blues is a straight up, no-bullshit Aussie classic. From the hilarious, slang-packed dialogue and rich, honest characterisation, through to its eye opening cruelty and uncompromising take on the darker corners of teenage life, Puberty Blues is as good as it gets.
Directed with a mix of warmth, unflinching social enquiry and hard hitting honesty by Beresford, Puberty Blues was set around the then slightly wild and undeveloped beaches of Sydney’s Cronulla in the early eighties – an often cruel landscape home to local surfing crews, cheap and nasty drugs, copious booze, scrappily captured moments of teen sex, street prowling “fuck trucks” and fierce territorialism. The source material came courtesy of teenage authors and good friends Kathy Lette and Gabrielle Carey, whose novel had scandalised Australia’s literary scene in the seventies. With shocking candour, the pair – who had rechristened themselves The Salami Sisters – documented their wild teenage years spent tanning on the beach, flouting convention, pulling the wool over their parents’ eyes, and enjoying tawdry night-time fumblings with the local boys.
Their slim but explosive tome was filled with salty teenage slang, frank sexuality and combustible honesty. It also framed a subculture almost horrific in its brutal machismo, with the cocky surfer boys ruling the roost, and their girls standing by and expected to do little more than cluck. “Growing up as a surfie girl in the seventies meant that you were little more than a life support system to a pair of breasts,” says co-author Kathy Lette, who remains an outspoken and hilarious author and commentator on Australian life and the battle of the sexes. “We were human handbags, draped over the arms of the boys, living vicariously through them. No wonder I’m a feminist!”
The book was a scurrilous sensation, so it naturally found its way into the hands of a pair of film producers, namely Joan Long (who had written the highly regarded films Caddie and The Picture Show Man, which she also produced) and Margaret Kelly (a seasoned TV writer who also adapted the book for the screen). Young author Kathy Lette was duly thrilled about Puberty Blues being turned into a movie. “I was so excited by the whole idea of the film industry,” she says today from a slightly more jaded perspective. “It seemed so glamorous. I didn’t realise then that most film producers couldn’t produce a urine sample. If they did, it would be so toxic that they’d be stamping due dates in the prison library for the rest of their lives. Since then, I’ve learnt to take the film industry with not just a pinch but a packet of salt!”
This first experience, however, was a happy one for Lette. It was the passion and fierce commitment from Joan Long and Margaret Kelly that got the Puberty Blues cinematic ball rolling, but things really started to swing when Bruce Beresford got involved. The director was on an absolute hot streak with Breaker Morant and the aforementioned Don’s Party and The Club, and had also helmed the epochal yob-comedy The Adventures Of Barry McKenzie, as well as 1978’s The Getting Of Wisdom, a very different look at teenage girls. Producers Long and Kelly had already offered the film to director Gillian Armstrong, whose My Brilliant Career had made a bold feminist statement in 1979. Armstrong declined, and it was a fortuitous wait for a bus in North Sydney that brought Beresford to the project. Looking for something to read while waiting for a ride back over the bridge, the director slipped into a newsagent and picked up a copy of Puberty Blues, which he promptly devoured with a mix of shock and admiration. “The book seemed to be uncommonly honest and extremely truthful and believable,” Beresford says. “That’s what made me want to do it. It was very well observed.” When he learned that a feature film was being put together, he threw his hat into the ring, and Bruce Beresford soon became the director of Puberty Blues.
“Bruce Beresford is a cinematic legend,” says Kathy Lette, who took the director on a research trip around to all of the places mentioned in the book once he’d signed on. “He’s inspirational, quirky and original. We met up last Christmas at Barry Humphries’ New Years Eve party, and we both pretended that we hadn’t aged any. I’m approaching forty…only I’m not saying from which direction!”
For Beresford – who’d previously proven himself a master at capturing blokey Aussie excess with the aforementioned The Adventures Of Barry McKenzie – the film plays out like a brutal updating of his masterful The Getting Of Wisdom, a turn-of-the-century tale of a young girl trying to find her own voice within the hallowed halls of a rarefied boarding school. In turn, Puberty Blues tracks two modern girls reaching out for their own brand of independence. There was one major change to the book: the age of its shockingly precocious thirteen-year-old heroines was bumped up for fear of a moralistic backlash. “What made the book so powerful was that the girls experienced this intense tribal misogyny when they were just thirteen,” says Lette. “For censorship purposes, the girls’ ages were escalated to sixteen…which slightly dipped the story in disinfectant.”
Sixteen-year-olds Debbie Vickers and Sue Knight (then-newcomers Nell Schofield and Jad Capelja) are bristling under the heavy brand of sexism doled out by the boys they kick around with (a real bunch of dead-shits, all mired in drug abuse and their own superstar surfer status), and the dual oppression of school and parents. Much like later Hollywood teen flicks such as Mean Girls and Pretty In Pink, the narrative and thematic thrust of Puberty Blues is the girls’ initial desperation to hook into the “in-crowd”. But with a strong feminist kick, Debbie and Sue ultimately realise that they’re their own in-crowd, and soon strike out on their own terms.
With its young characters, and bounding sense of youthful exuberance, Beresford naturally had to cast Puberty Blues with relative unknowns, which brought its own problems. “We had trouble getting a cast together because we wanted people who were really into surfing,” explains Beresford. “The trouble was that they were so into surfing that they didn’t want to be in a movie about surfing – they actually wanted to be surfing. It was very hard to find the kids to be in it. They’d give it a week, but there was no way that they’d do it for six. They’d rather be out surfing! We just had open call auditions because there were so few kids who were interested. We couldn’t cast it all in Sydney, so we had to bring a few of them up from Melbourne. The ones that we finally got were all highly motivated. When we actually cast it, the pool was very small because there were so few kids who wanted to do it.”
One kid who did want it was Nell Schofield, a young actress and keen surfer from Sydney’s eastern suburbs who impressed Beresford with her fresh, forthright demeanour, and perky good looks. “She’s a wonderful girl,” enthuses the director. Schofield’s plucky performance as the often put upon Debbie – who just knows that there’s something better out there than the life that she’s currently trudging through – remains one of the best ever by a young actor in an Australian film. Though the daughter of renowned author and high-brow social commentator Leo Schofield, Nell had spent hours baking under a blinding Bondi sun, and had more than a little in common with her Cronulla counterpart Debbie Vickers. “She was a bit more full tilt than I was at that time, but her feistiness and determination to bust into those male dominated arenas struck a big chord with me,” says Schofield, who later went on to a very successful career as a journalist, film reviewer and television presenter. “This was a kid who’d marched with Germaine Greer for Women’s Liberation when she was just ten-years-old. The book of Puberty Blues was an underground sensation at school, carefully hidden from the view of teachers for fear that they’d bust our game wide open.”
Kathy Lette was particularly happy with Schofield’s performance, which in effect functioned as a massive celluloid magnification of her own grungy teenage experiences. “I was thrilled with Nell’s performance,” says the author. “I’m a terrible actress. The only cast I’ve ever been in was on my leg. I’m in awe of actors. Although, when I was writing for the sitcom Facts Of Life in the late eighties, George Clooney, who’d just been cast on the show, asked me out…and I turned him down! I replied haughtily, ‘I’m a writer. I don’t go out with actors. You put other people’s words in your mouth when you never know where they’ve been!’ Of course, I want to kill myself now. I think I’ll ring him and say, ‘Um, about that date…I’ve had time to think it through.’”
Though shot through with the kind of things that make most actors nervous (sex scenes, emotional exposure, complex vernacular language), Puberty Blues was a happy experience for Schofield, who was surrounded by like minded young performers. “It was great fun,” she says. “It was very supportive. Jad Capelja and I hit it off immediately and kept in touch for some years after the shoot.” Jad Capelja, however, would ultimately turn out to be the saddest and most tragic part of the Puberty Blues story. A vibrantly talented acting debutante who, apart from a leading role in the little-seen 1982 youth flick Freedom, disappeared from view after Puberty Blues. She retired from acting in the late 1980s, and later struggled with addiction and was diagnosed with paranoid schizophrenia. Capelja committed suicide on January 10, 2010, and her story was touchingly told in a heartbreaking episode of ABC-TV’s Australian Story entitled “Life After Puberty.” “She had no insight into her own illness,” Capelja’s ex-husband, Richard Muecke, said on the programme. “She firmly believed that she was living in the real world, and that there were certainly people out to get her. She would spend days decoding The Sydney Morning Herald, recoding it and coming out with, ‘Somebody’s gonna kill me.’ But we thought she was getting better, she was finally on a treatment programme.”
Though the tragic passing of Jad Capelja hangs like a dark cloud over the film’s sunny vistas, it’s still easy to get lost in the world of Puberty Blues. Beresford’s work on the film is nothing short of stunning. “Bruce Beresford was like a big kid himself, always telling jokes and creating a fabulous, comfortable mood on set,” says Nell Schofield. “He has a wicked sense of humour and we adored him for it. He was, and still is, a wonderful, down-to-earth man.”
He mined the raunchy material for all it was worth, attacking the subject matter with his characteristic lack of compromise. The film’s teenagers are blushingly, believably real, and the book’s dismantling of social and sexual mores was capably replicated on celluloid. On its release, Puberty Blues was nothing short of a phenomenon: Australia’s teenagers finally saw themselves on screen, and responded in kind, packing local cinemas and turning the film into a bona fide smash hit. “I remember the shock of seeing myself up on the huge Village Cinemas billboard in George Street [in Sydney],” recalls Schofield. “So many months had passed, and suddenly the film was getting a release. Jad and I went on a whirlwind publicity tour around the country, and we had a ball riding in limos and playing movie stars for the press. Mel Gibson and Mark Lee were doing the rounds for Gallipoli at the same time, and I recall one wild night when we drank the hotel mini-bar dry. We were only nineteen…actually, I was eighteen.”
International sales put the film into cinemas all over the world, where its strongly localised bent was met with a mixture of confusion and surprise. “The craziest trip was to Imelda Marcos’ film festival in Manila,” Schofield recalls. “We got mobbed by the locals after a screening of the film. That was a real head spin, and a little bit scary too.”
Puberty Blues has since solidified into a bona fide teen classic, and one of this country’s real cult films, occupying the same kind of territory as Mad Max, Chopper and Muriel’s Wedding. Its dialogue is quoted, its characters fondly recalled, and its sun-crusted imagery even reproduced on surf clothing. Though not blessed with the kind of critical glow afforded films like Picnic At Hanging Rock or The Chant Of Jimmie Blacksmith, Puberty Blues reverberates in a down-and-dirty way that those films never could. It’s a film soaked in the nervous sweat of adolescence, and that’s something that we can all relate to. “I love the way that the film has endured,” says Nell Schofield. “We knew that it was a hit at the time, and that original fan base has snowballed ever since. Sometimes I call it my ‘albatross’ because it really has followed me around in a big way through the decades. I’ll be at a dance party and someone will come up to me and start talking about the origin of the word ‘moll’. Someone else will want me to say their favourite line of dialogue for them. The release of the DVD only increased the amount of people who insist on singing the theme song to me…eeek! I’ll never escape it, but there are certain perks – I was flying home from San Francisco the other day, and the steward recognised me and gave me an upgrade. In fact, he’d read with me for the part of [surfer and Debbie’s first boyfriend] Bruce Board all those years ago!”
Kathy Lette allowed the tyranny of distance to put a little space between her and the book and subsequent film that made her famous. “The liberating aspect of moving to London at age thirty was that nobody knew about Pubes there,” she explains. “I could start again. That’s not to say that I’m not proud of both, but at age thirty it was getting a bit embarrassing to still be called upon as the spokesperson for youth. Hell, I had chin hairs! I look back on the film with pride, and amazement really, that it turned out so well. I’ve had a film made of another book since then, Mad Cows [directed in 1999 by Sara Sugarman], staring Joanna Lumley and Anna Friel. The experience was dreadful. It was like seeing my own children raped by Cossacks.”
Bruce Beresford, on the other hand, is a little further removed from the cult that surrounds Puberty Blues. When FilmInk interviewed him several years ago when the film was first released on DVD, he was a jumble of half-remembered truths and faded memories. “I haven’t seen the film for years,” he laughed. “I can hardly remember it. Everything has changed so much since we did the film. All of those social mores don’t really exist any more. I haven’t really been aware of the cult audience that has developed around the film because I haven’t really been back in Australia much. I come back for Christmas and things like that, but I haven’t been based there for ages. I’ve done a lot of films since then. I can remember it of course, but not in great detail. I won’t look at it. I don’t like looking at the old films. I haven’t watched any of my films again after the initial process. What for? What would be the point? I’d just sit there and go, ‘Oh, I should’ve directed that better’. That’s the only thing that would cross my mind. I won’t watch it, but I’m glad to have it,” he said of the DVD, of which he had charmingly little knowledge. “I don’t even know who owns the rights to the film! It’s not me! I’m not getting any money from it. It’s certainly not me.”
Like other teen films from the eighties, Puberty Blues still has a valid currency with today’s teens, who seem to enjoy it both for its “kitsch/retro” value and its emotional honesty. This, of course, begs the question: are teenagers a lot different today, or are they essentially not too far away from the protagonists in the film? “Teen babes seem a lot more evolved now than they were back then,” Schofield replies. “Maybe they learned from our mistakes? I certainly hope so. Nevertheless, there are still ritual pecking orders that operate in the Aussie teenisphere – if kids aren’t taught that bullying is bad, they’ll try it on.”
Kathy Lette sees even less change. “I’m the mother of a teenage daughter, and when she’s exasperating, I do wonder if teenagers are God’s punishment for having sex! Still, whenever I’m tempted to put either of my kids back into the condom vending machine for a refund, I remind myself that they’re just like I was back then.”
Bruce Beresford, however, thinks that they’re far better off. “Adolescents are all living in clover! They’re having a great time,” the director laughs. “I’ve got a sixteen-year-old daughter, and I see her with her friends and they seem to be a very happy bunch. I’m very suspicious about what they’re up to. She hasn’t seen any of my films. She’s never shown any interest. She looked at ten minutes of Breaker Morant and turned it off! She thought it was rubbish. I said, ‘No, no, no – it’s been internationally acclaimed!’ and she said, ‘Well, I don’t like it.’”
Though Beresford’s daughter was not keen to wade into the occasionally treacherous waters of Puberty Blues, the movie was re-engineered for a new generation with the masterful TV series, Puberty Blues, which ran on Channel 10 for two seasons from 2010, and expanded the narrative of the film outward, to deal more heavily with the larger world that surrounds Debbie and Sue (wonderfully played by Ashleigh Cummings and Brenna Harding), taking in the trials and tribulations of their parents and their extended circle of friends. One of the best movie-to-TV transitions ever created, Puberty Blues drilled deep into the bleached sand of its source material and came up with narrative and thematic gold.
Kathy Lette, meanwhile, also happily threw herself into the surf once again. After nearly thirty years, she returned to the hot sand and crystalline waves of Cronulla with her 2008 novel, To Love, Honour And Betray – Till Divorce Us Do Part, which is about a beachside mum thrown into a spin when her husband leaves her. “My family still live in The Shire,” Lette says of the area in Sydney’s south often referred to as “god’s country”. “The novel is set in Cronulla, and it’s about a mother with a teenage daughter. I thought that it would be fascinating to look at the whole puberty ordeal from the other end of the telescope. It should be subtitled ‘Parental Blues.’ It’s set around the world of surf life saving. My sister Liz trained for her bronze, and I pumped her ruthlessly for material. The book is dedicated to her – she suffered the cracked ribs and bruised hip bones on my behalf. The big change from Puberty Blues is that the young women are so strong and independent. They not only surf, but stand on their own two stilettos. They’re not waiting around to be rescued by a knight in shining Armani.”
It’s this type of feminism that Puberty Blues is sadly never quite celebrated for. When people talk of the film, it’s invariably the rough-around-the-edges slang (“I’m first, you’re second, you’re slops,” surfie Strach memorably and horribly says before he and two pals take turns having sex with a young girl), the fashions (who could forget Debbie Vickers’ ponytails?), and the surfing that get all of the play. But it’s the film’s constant prodding at the ugly unfairness of the male dominated social strata of its surfside setting that really sets it apart. It’s a film filled with humour and genuine warmth, but Puberty Blues never shies away from showing the appalling things that happen to girls in beachside suburbs. The harassment and borderline rape are always there, hovering in the air like electrodes ready to snap and spit.
All of this makes the film’s transcendent ending so utterly perfect in its sense of drama and so truly essential in its thematic kick. Sick of warming the towels while the boys rule the surf, Debbie and Sue buy their own surfboard, wade into the ocean, and learn to ride their own waves. Within the male dominated surf culture, it’s an act of pioneering feminism and a classic middle-finger salute. It’s also one of the most memorable endings in Australian cinema history, and a richly satisfying capper to one of its best films. “One of the reasons that the film is so powerful and has had such a lasting impact is because of the way that it resolves itself in that proud feminist statement,” says Nell Schofield. “People leave the cinema on a high. The fact that the story has at its core a relationship between two women also gives it a big boost in the feminist stakes. We’ve seen a lot of blokey films come out of this country lately that certainly haven’t reflected on my experiences as a woman…let alone done much business at the box office. Perhaps it’s time for us chicks to pull our fingers out and start writing honestly about our lives like Kathy Lette and Gabrielle Carey did. Maybe then we’ll see films that really speak to a whole generation…and then some.”
Puberty Blues is available now on DVD and Blu-ray. Many, many thanks to all who so generously gave of their time to be interviewed, and thus made this story possible.