Despite hopes that Our Ladies would accurately depict growing up in Scotland as a teenage girl, Music Editor Jodie Leith was let down by the teen flick.
Debuting at the 2020 Glasgow Film Festival earlier this year, Scottish Catholic schoolgirls-gone-wild “teen” flick, Our Ladies, is not the sort of film you want to watch sandwiched between your mother and sister. Unfortunately, I did. Having lived through the unspeakable discomfort of endless filthy innuendoes, unwarranted full-frontal nudity, and awkward sex scenes —the worst featured one of the girls outdoors, being whipped with a rosary during the act; thank God my mum went to the toilet) — I not only highly question its extremely generous 15 rating, but have a good few thoughts on the film.
Director and writer Michael Caton-Jones made it clear that the film had taken 20 years to come to fruition, as he believes a variety of factors including its depiction of class and gender acted as barriers preventing its creation. Additionally, offers to create the film but set the location elsewhere were denied, as Caton-Jones passionately maintained his request to keep the film entirely and authentically Scottish. As a result, Our Ladies was long-awaited. Speaking to The Skinny earlier this year, Caton-Jones stated that the “world has caught up” and was finally ready for its release.
Based on Alan Warner’s award-winning 1998 novel The Sopranos, later adapted by Lee Hall (of Billy Elliot and Rocketman fame) into Our Ladies of Perpetual Succour for the stage, Caton-Jones’ third version is definitely loyal to both texts and an understandable reincarnation. Set in 1996, a group of best friends and students of Our Ladies of Perpetual Succour in Fort William travel to Edinburgh to compete in a choir competition, which they believe is the perfect opportunity to ditch the singing and go drinking, shopping and, most importantly, meet boys along the way.
The group of girls are tiringly familiar: Orla (Tallulah Greive) is the quiet and relatable protagonist, Finnoula (Abigail Lawrie) is the group’s intimidating ringleader, Chell (Rona Morison) is the flirt, and Manda (Sally Messham) is the comic relief. The talent of the young actresses is undeniable, particularly that of Marli Siu, with her performance as calculating singer Kylah being a clear standout. Siu opens the film with a fitting, energetic rendition of Buzzcocks’ Ever Fallen in Love With Someone (You Shouldn’t Have Fallen In Love With). Yet despite these clear, definitive tropes, the girls’ individual personalities, while already cliché, seem to blur into one another and get lost in the dialogue. Don’t expect to keep track of the group, as they all seem to form one entity (and not in a clever or symbolic way).
Upon the release of the trailer, Our Ladies garnered a lot of comparisons to fellow 90’s-set Catholic teenage comedy, Derry Girls. Derry Girls, however, handles its humour extremely well, balancing the precise amount of relatable and often heart-breaking moments with a dash of comedic absurdity. Our Ladies falls short of establishing this harmony, as the consistently vulgar dialogue fails to soften or create any sort of engaging humour, to the point of repetitive boredom. Too often, it seems other characters’ lines seem to only exist and function, very obviously, as prompts for another innuendo.
The film stumbles again in its portrayal of being a teenage girl. Our Ladies juxtaposes its discussion of sexual discovery and sexuality with the constant and eventually tiring reminder from someone (usually an older, male character) that the friends behave so suggestively because they’re Catholic school girls. This devalues the girls’ personal empowerment and positive sexual awakening, instead sexualising them in relation to their young age; and almost consistently from a male gaze perspective. Whilst clearly constructed as a joke within the film, the persistent school-girl comments instead come across as creepy and fail to provide any commentary on the sexualisation of young girls. The film certainly tries to be about female empowerment but fails to portray a key aspect of being a young girl, which is the reality and danger of the inappropriate sexual behaviour of men.
These comments are the tip of the iceberg of the disturbing behaviour of older men in Our Ladies, as their sexual advances throughout the film towards the under-18s are often passed off as comedic and met with a sexual retort. Perhaps the most troubling example of this occurs when the girls return to the Edinburgh flat of two older men that they’ve just met while skiving from the choir competition. One of the men is persistent in his sexual advances towards the girls and at one point gets completely naked. While this is written off as comedic, cheeky, and harmless, as he then injures himself while nude and the girls all laugh, the whole situation felt extremely dangerous and unrealistic. While comedy isn’t always the best place to address heavy issues, deliberately constructing a comedic situation surrounding two older men sexually grooming underage girls in their flat while giving them alcohol felt tone-deaf and off the path of empowerment the film claims to chase, especially in 2020. Moments like this made me reflect on the long line of older men at the helm of Our Ladies — Alan Warner, Lee Hall, and now Michael Caton-Jones — and think, isn’t it time that women start telling their own stories?
While the film struggles with a variety of aspects, Our Ladies certainly holds Scotland at its core, with beautiful shots of Edinburgh and Fort William. The talent of the young cast is phenomenal and a brilliant reminder of the untapped potential of Scottish actors. The soundtrack was filled with 90s classics and the story itself had great potential. I was really rooting for this film to deliver but it just missed the mark.
Our Ladies simply lacked the awkward relatability of Derry Girls, or the fun sexually-charged humour of fellow coming-of-age flick Superbad, instead opting for an awkward fusion of persistent lifeless rude remarks and the occasional brushed-over and undeveloped heavy plot point. I truly wish, as a Scottish girl myself, Our Ladies had succeeded in its mission to show the reality of being a young girl in Scotland. Unfortunately, the reality of being a girl growing up in Scotland still has not been shown accurately, and perhaps a woman at the helm of a story about women would make a huge difference. Our Ladies is one to miss, but not a story that should be ignored.