‘It’s more about the first time you’re experiencing life with big emotions – love, identity, and, certainly, sexuality,’ director Alli Haapasalo tells Dazed of her coming-of-age film. ‘It’s about finding your place in the world’
Alli Haapasalo’s coming-of-age drama Girls Girls Girls opens with a warm, fuzzy feeling. A Finnish teenager, Emma (Linnea Leino), is dancing on her own at a nightclub, uncaring if anyone is watching. The bouncy electropop segues into a sports session at school where Mimmi (Aamu Milonoff) and Rönkkö (Eleonoora Kauhanen) are supposedly living the best years of their lives. Then at the 90-second mark, the music stops: Mimmi uses her hockey stick to assault another classmate.
“We go straight to the problem and ask what’s wrong with her,” the 44-year-old Finnish director remarks from her home in Helsinki. “I think a high percentage of filmmakers are traumatised from gym class. But this isn’t a high-school film. It’s more about the first time you’re experiencing life with big emotions – love, identity, and, certainly, sexuality. It’s about finding your place in the world.”
Haapasalo’s second feature, her follow-up to Love and Fury, goes by a few names. In Finland, it’s Tytöt tytöt tytöt; in America, it was switched to Girl Picture to avoid stripper connotations. Girls Girls Girls, though, which is the director’s preferred English title, signifies the attitude of three teenagers whose desires and anxieties intertwine over three consecutive Fridays. Mimmi’s priority is to seduce a figure skater, Emma, whom she encounters in a smoothie shop. Meanwhile, her best friend, Rönkkö, is a romantic who wants a partner to watch Netflix with in bed – and also provide her an orgasm. “We’re so young,” Mimmi tells nervy Rönkkö. “I wouldn’t panic. You just need to screw more.”
In Emma’s plot strand, she’s attempting to remaster the triple Lutz in time for the European Championships. As well as being a young woman who’s literally rated out of ten by a panel of adults, Emma faces the turbulence of a first relationship. Haapasalo describes Emma as subverting the movie trope of reluctant teen athletes. “It’s more interesting that she’s super-driven,” Haapasalo says. “It’s not a decision between love and winning – she wants both.”
Haapasalo started working on the script in 2014 with her cowriters, Ilona Ahti and Daniela Hakulinen. In early drafts, there was forced conflict, threats of violence (“the girls got in danger with a sleazy guy”), and other ticked boxes from screenwriting manuals. Then Haapasalo – partly inspired by the #MeToo movement – argued against torturing the characters. “I remember thinking: we have to have some kind of nasty situation because otherwise it’s a utopian story. But do we? I don’t think we do. In this world, the girls get to take centre stage, be powerful, be brave, and not be punished for it. That’s our freedom as filmmakers.”
Throughout the development, there were objections to the smallness of the drama. Someone asked if the three girls could form a rock band and enter a competition – coincidentally or not coincidentally the plot of Lukas Moodysson’s We Are the Best! “We’re so conditioned to the idea that there needs to be a goal,” she sighs. “I just wanted to hang out with the characters. When the ‘three Fridays’ structure was figured out, all the pieces fell into place.”
With its youthful energy, Girls Girls Girls may seem like an anomaly from Finnish cinema. I’ve seen 20 Finnish movies – but 16 are ultra-slow, morbid comedies by Aki Kaurismäki. More recently, there’s been anti-romcom Compartment No. 6 and BDSM drama Dogs Don’t Wear Pants. “When I was at film school in Finland, a lot of Finnish films were historical dramas or by Aki Kaurismäki. Now, 20 years later, there’s been a generational shift. We’re concentrating on what’s we find interesting in today’s society. These films luckily travel as well. A Finnish war drama wouldn’t travel now – because who cares?”
After graduating from film school in Finland, Haapasalo studied at NYU where one of her tutors was Spike Lee, whom she speaks highly of. Around this period, she saw Moodysson’s lesbian romance Show Me Love – also known as Fucking Amal. “Lukas Moodysson had a gutsiness and made characters that are so identifiable to young people. Fucking Amal felt so fresh, and had a very documentary style that our film takes inspiration from.”
At the climax of Fucking Amal, Agnes and Elin proudly strut down the hallway, hand in hand, in defiance against homophobic bullies. In Girls Girls Girls, though, the parents and classmates of the queer characters are allies. Emma and Mimmi’s storyline is thus more concerned about the awkwardness of two young girls flirting. Meanwhile, Rönkkö provides robotic instructions to a male lover on how to go down on her; the humour emerges when he responds not like a porn star, but a terrified boy.
Akin to Florence Pugh dissing the advertising campaign of Don’t Worry Darling, Haapasalo wants to emphasise that Girls Girls Girls is more than a one-dimensional depiction of female pleasure. “Very often, if a woman is sexually active in a film, she gets called names, she’s distant and mysterious, or she’s so into pleasure that she’s a nympho hurting her life,” Haapasalo says. “I wanted to be a lot more human and realistic. It’s very – for lack of a better word – normal. Women are sexual beings, just like men are.”
Apologising for switching the topic to male pleasure, I ask about a scene in which Rönkkö, struggling for conversation, espouses at a party about the “Moomin mug method”. As lesbian couples in the 90s were unable to get fertility treatment in Finland, their DIY method involved ceramic surfaces that supposedly help preserve sperm. “Whenever I drink from a Moomin mug, I wonder if it was a mug someone ejaculated in,” Rönkkö blabbers to her love interest, sipping from a Moomin mug. “A lot of Moomin mugs are collectible items, so people don’t throw them away.”
I’m a little puzzled: why Moomins? “I’m sure it’s because Moomins are cute and a national treasure,” Haapasalo speculates. “Nowadays, same-sex couples can get fertility treatments legally and safely, so the term has dissipated. The girls in the film, who were around 20, didn’t understand it at all. I felt like a dinosaur explaining it to them.”
I tell Haapasalo that Moodysson wants to do a sequel to Fucking Amal, and his next project is a follow-up to Together. Would she do the same? “The next one has to be Women Women Women, then at some point Grannies Grannies Grannies. I’ll maybe revisit these characters in ten years’ time.”
She’s recently received development funding for a period piece set in the 19th century about a “woman too rebellious for her time”. Although it’s technically a historical drama, it sounds unlike the Finnish war movies she decried earlier in our conversation. After all, Finnish teenagers have flocked to Girls Girls Girls, and so have viewers abroad. At Sundance, it won the Audience Award; the New York Times critic who went viral for slamming the similarly titled Bodies Bodies Bodies, deemed it to be a “charming, irresistible coming-of-age story”.
“Finnish films don’t usually appeal to young audiences, but they have said to me – and also many parents have told me about their kids – that it’s the ‘best Finnish film ever’,” Haapasalo says, emphasising the quotation marks. “If a teenager in Finland has to choose between Batman, Dumbledore, and a Finnish film, they rarely go for the Finnish film. But in this case, I’m happy they chose us. The point of identification is a big reason why they liked it.”
Girls Girls Girls is out in UK cinemas on September 30