The film “Hey Hey, It’s Esther Blueberger,’ impressed me, and I certainly did not expect it to. (The too-cool Keisha Castle-Hughes has a starring role, so I guess I should have expected to be impressed). By its Netflix description I rather expected ‘HHIEB’ to be ‘Mean Girls’ written for a younger crowd ((sidenote: after I watched Mean Girls for the first time, I felt as if I’d swallowed poison. The characters’ behavior is so unlikely and in a word- toxic)). While ‘HHIEB’ begins on a similar note (clearly unpopular young girl, picked on by her female peers), it transitions rapidly to a coming of age story which is unusual for this genre in certain ways.
First of all, Esther has a personality. Other films tend to embrace the expectation that little girls are content to be ‘little girl’ rather than ‘quirky’, ‘adventurous’, ‘goofy’, ‘ambitious.’ Esther possesses all of those qualities with no apparent external compulsion to do so. Her awkwardness does not vanish, though she manages something of self-esteem by mid-movie, once she has friends. This is entirely typical of any human being, to feel more confident because we have friends. And she gains these friends without changing her physical appearance, which is absolutely revolutionary amidst a tide of silver-screen ‘makeover’ rags-to-riches popularity stories.
Esther never apologizes for her personality. This is another fantastic quality of this film. She begins the film with a semblance of confidence, or at least capability to interact with her peers by necessity (watch it, you’ll see what I mean). She begins to ‘grow into’ herself. As the film develops, we see her decorate a pair of shoes to her liking, switch schools to suit her needs, use candy rainbow sprinkles as personal adornment, and bury a dear friend. Esther makes mistakes. She doesn’t dwell on her mistakes, nor does she become over-emotional and burdened by a need for apology. The style of the film is very real in that way.
The best part, as far as I’m concerned, is the ending. Not to say I was happy to see it end! What I appreciated about the ending was that while it did not ignore ‘happily ever after’ entirely, it didn’t circumnavigate reality, either. Esther’s family was still bizarre, and she herself remained subtle and quirky. The dead did not come back to life. The friendships formed in the film stay warm and fuzzy, with the occasional snag (sweater?). She didn’t have a life-changing kiss or a romantic dance moment. She became more empowered, and her situation changed a bit. After all, why should a character’s entire way of life change drastically just because a movie has to end?
Cathy Randall wrote and directed this Australian film, which hosts a majority-female cast. It certainly passes the Bechdel test. The film’s Wikipedia entry currently states that
“Cathy Randall’s script for Hey, Hey, It’s Esther Blueburger stemmed from her desire “to make a film about a kick-ass chick, a heroine for teenagers and people of all ages”, wanting to take a female twist on The Catcher in the Rye‘s Holden Caulfield. She said that she had “always been struck by the fact that there are not enough role models for teenage girls”.”
I agree, Cathy! There are not nearly enough positive role models for teenage girls in film. While I wouldn’t take Esther as a behavioral role model in every way, I see that it’s powerful that she refuses to be trapped in a stifling situation. She makes choices and as a result, she grows.
I’m feeling good about increasing instances of positive female presence in films.