In Girl Picture, Finnish director Alli Haapasalo takes a realistic look at the trials and tribulations of young women in their formative years, exploring their relationships and sexuality. The film, c0-written by Daniela Hakulinen and Ilona Ahti, won the Audience Award for World Dramatic Competition at last year’s Sundance Film Festival and plays at the IFC Theater and other select theaters in New York this week.
The story follows three women, Mimmi (Aamu Milonoff), Emma (Linnea Leino) and Rönkkö (Eleonoora Kauhanen), on three consecutive Fridays. During this time, Mimmi, a free spirit, and Emma, a highly disciplined ice skater, fall in love. Rönkko goes on a quest for a passionate tryst to further her own self-understanding. All three women explore these newly found parts of themselves without judgment or victimization.
Haapasalo shared that the film’s original Finnish title is “Tytöt, Tytöt, Tytöt,” which translates into “Girls, Girls, Girls.” This phrase is used in Finland to shame young women. The director is reclaiming this name as a celebration of girls as they grow, change and are challenged by life.
I spoke with Haapasalo about what drew her to this story and what was important for her to get right while filming intimate scenes. We also discussed what parts of Girl Picture her teenage self might most relate to.
Risa Sarachan: What drew you to this project?
Alli Haapasalo: Screenwriters Ilona Ahti and Daniela Hakulinen approached me with a treatment in 2014. Their idea for a story of adolescent girls with a condensed time frame immediately felt relatable and modern. We were all frustrated about how few girl characters we had been able to identify with growing up. I got very excited about the opportunity to take a stab at redefining the representation of young women on the big screen.
The script went through a long development process, during which time not only did the screenplay change, but also we changed and the world around us changed. A conversation about whose stories we are telling, and who gets to tell them, strengthened. We all had to acknowledge and deconstruct unconscious bias – and when I say we, I mean the whole Finnish film industry, and that includes us, the creators of this film. Starting with the question of what kind of story about girls is “big enough” or “important” to put on the big screen. We wanted to not get too plot-driven, keep the story on the skin and allow time to focus on the intimate experiences of seventeen to eighteen-year-old girls. My biggest motivation was to try to be very realistic and truthful.
Sarachan: What was your casting process?
Haapasalo: The script was exceptional in the sense that it had no definition of these girls’ habitus – throughout the writing process, we were always focused on their actions, not what they looked like. So moving from the page to real people, I got to start with a totally open mind. I deliberately took casting slowly in order to allow time for the conversation that happens between the script, the directorial vision and the talented actors at auditions. I wasn’t just looking for three great and charismatic actors, but really I was looking for a trio that would play together seamlessly. I also wanted a cast who was willing to dedicate themselves fully and feel ownership for their characters. That meant readiness for a long rehearsal process, where we built not only the characters but also the trust and intimacy that these friends have with each other. After a three-month casting process, I knew that the amazing Aamu Milonoff, Linnea Leino and Eleonoora Kauhanen were the right choices. They all brought so much honesty and authenticity to their characters. It was a very committed and collaborative process.
Sarachan: It was refreshing to watch three women unapologetically explore their sexuality. What was important for you and the team to get right about capturing those experiences?
Haapasalo: I really wanted to show sexuality as something that’s very natural, both beautiful and problematic, a human and an animal need that belongs to everybody. Female desire and female pleasure should be something that we can look at without shock, judgment or fetishizing. We are used to seeing women as objects of desire in countless movies. But even when women are subjects, they very often end up having a punishment for exactly that, being a subject. Being active, having desire, or even simply trying to figure these things out often leads female characters to danger. We didn’t want to enforce the stereotype of a girl as a victim, so we quite simply removed all threats and dangers. Mimmi, Emma and Rönkkö explore their identities and sexualities without ever becoming belittled, shamed, patronized or victimized. The same goes for queer representation. Heterosexual couples enjoy an enormous privilege in not needing to answer anyone’s questions (or worse) about their sexuality. We wanted the relationship of Mimmi and Emma to have that same privilege, so their sexual orientation is not brought up once, nor is it an issue for anyone around them.
I don’t want to question the importance of coming out stories, but I think that mainstream film should be ready for queer characters who represent themselves as individuals and not just as characters of sexual identities. As for Rönkkö’s story arch, it is left open whether her not feeling pleasure is about asexuality or about her not having found what she likes yet. I don’t want to give away the ending of her quest for pleasure, but I promise that it’s unlikely to be the one you’d expect.
Sarachan: What lesson from Girl Picture do you think your teenage self would relate to the most?
Haapasalo: I would try to convince teenage me that incompleteness is a human state of being – and something that we should embrace rather than try to fix. As a young woman, I felt such pressure to “figure it out” and be perfect. But there is no life in perfection. Live lives in imperfections! At 44, I’m trying not to squeeze the bat so hard. I’m much more drawn to the flaws that make us human. Of course, the teenage me will only realize this, when she has more perspective!
By the way, “incompleteness” was one of our key ideas for the film’s aesthetics, as it’s, of course, a perfect symbol for adolescent growth. Whether they were internal or external imperfections in the characters, acting, locations or any aspect of the storytelling, I kept deliberately looking for imperfections and encouraging everyone in the team to do the same. The simplest example of this is the acne, hairy armpits and braces you see on the characters. These details shouldn’t be such a big deal, really, but it turns out that it’s very rare to see them in film.
Sarachan: What do you hope viewers take away from this film?
Haapasalo: Girl Picture doesn’t rant or wag a finger. On the contrary, it tries to turn the gaze inside and look at these girls’ identities and emotions very honestly. But still, I think it’s an understatedly radical film with a strong political undercurrent. The political statements it makes are all born from simply a positive and loving look at young women. The fact that there is no shaming, no danger and no anti-queer sentiment is unfortunately still radical. (Not for much longer, I hope!) I hope that people have a conversation about the themes of the film, be it with their friends or themselves.
In the end, you could say that this is a film about acceptance and self-acceptance. I hope that people walk away loving these girls, and maybe even with a more appreciative look at girls in general. It’s also a big hope of mine that viewers feel seen. Especially women and queer folks. Because that’s where we started this whole thing. With the need to put identifiable and realistic girl characters on the big screen. So that women can’t only feel looked at by the world, but truly seen.
Sarachan: What are you working on next?
Haapasalo: I’m working on two feature films, both of which are stories about very interesting female characters. One is set 120 years in the past and the other in the current day, and the main characters have completely different lives. But thematically, they are also related to each other as characters. Both are working through expectations and demands that women need to break or navigate through in order to be their true selves.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Girl Picture is now playing in theaters at New York’s IFC and other area theatres.