Here's the book's entry for Kate Davis' Girltalk, the first of the movies that will be revived to coincide with the May 1 release of Big Screen Boston. It will show at the Brattle Theater on April 30. Only the middle of the photos (all courtesy of Kate Davis) appears in the book, though here it's in glorious color.
1987. Directed by Kate Davis. Cinematography by Alyson Denny.
THIS IS THE BOSTON movie guaranteed to break your heart. Former Harvard students Kate Davis and Alyson Denny, who both worked as editors on Ross McElwee’s Sherman’s March, take their documentary camera and sound recorder to places movies rarely dare to travel, focusing on three Boston teen runaways. Rather than damning its troubled teens to hopelessness or glazing them in simple solutions, Girltalk humanizes all those statistics about runaways, teen pregnancies and abused children. The result is an engrossing combination of heartbreaking tragedy and life-affirming resilience.
Each girl is in a different stage of her teen years and a different stage of her troubles. Pinky is a 14-year-old Roxbury truant who’s run away in the past. After living in two foster homes briefly, she’s now back with her mother in a no-questions-asked situation. Mars left home at 13, after being raped by her stepbrother. Years later, she’s still numbed by the experience, and works as a stripper in the Combat Zone. And Somerville’s Martha—19, single and pregnant—is using motherhood as a reason to put a past of sexual abuse and self-destructive behavior behind her.
Combining interviews and footage that follow each in day-to-day activities, Girltalk deftly avoids pigeonholing or exploiting the girls. These girls are here because of their troubles, yet they’re not simply victims in a “case study” movie. Mars and Martha both talk about the sexual abuse they suffered, yet Davis resists sensationalism. The movie never acts with moral superiority or pity, and it never looks down on its “girls.”
It also never weighs itself down with self-importance. Pinky, Mars and Martha appear to be so comfortable on camera that the movie is unusually intimate and they speak very freely. Director Davis, who’d previously co-written Vacant Lot, a documentary-style short about Somerville project kids, obviously made them at ease. Girltalk’s greatest achievement is blending a variety of emotions into a thoroughly captivating, bittersweet mood. Such a mood accommodates a funny-sad line like Pinky’s half-optimistic, half-pessimistic “The first time I get married I’m gonna wear white, the second time I’m gonna wear pink,” and makes you feel for Martha at the same time you want to chew her out for smoking while pregnant.
The tone also informs the sequences filmed at the bar where Mars strips in a schoolgirl’s uniform, the Combat Zone’s Pussycat Lounge (which had already closed by the time the movie opened at the Brattle Theater in May 1988). She usually performs her act in a schoolgirl outfit, the energetic music to which she disrobes mixing with the sad irony of what grown-up-too-soon Mars is doing.
Such a mood makes Girltalk unusually dramatic. Mars’ final dance, in which she’s bathed in red light and wears a diaphanous cape, is set to Janis Ian’s “Bright Light and Promises” and has the sad beauty of the Rolling Stones’ “Love in Vain” sequence in Albert and David Maysles’ Gimme Shelter. There’s a split-second when the camera catches the expression of weary despair on Mars’ face as she finishes, and there’s more emotional tension in it than most fiction films ever muster.
Though all three girls complain of inattentive parenting, Girltalk doesn’t merely point fingers. It looks more towards the future. With Mars and Martha, the movie seems to say, we’re watching survivors (though Martha’s baby has a worried face that makes you think he knows the struggle he’s in for). In Pinky’s case, there’s the foreboding of someone who seems headed for more trouble. Girltalk is not conventionally entertaining, but it is incredibly engaging. Like the best documentaries that have taken a similar path—from Streetwise and Hoop Dreams to Love and Diane—you’ll never forget it.