Female Filmmakers in Focus: Alli Haapasalo on Girl Picture

Debuting in World Dramatic Competition at the Sundance Film Festival earlier this year, where it won the Audience Award, Alli Haapasalo’s “Girl Picture” is an irrepressibly girly coming-of-age film. Set over three Fridays, it follows teenagers Mimmi (Aamu Milonoff), Rönkkö (Eleonoora Kauhanen), and Emma (Linnea Leino) as the trio fall in love for the first time, search for carnal pleasures, and navigate the liminal space that is being a teenage girl. Unabashedly horny and strikingly intimate, Haapasalo’s film treats each girl’s emotional and physical journeys with nonjudgmental honesty. With buoyant performances at its center and charm to spare, “Girl Picture” should be well on its way to a spot in the female friendship film hall of fame.

Featuring a script by Ilona Ahti and Daniela Hakulinen, “Girl Picture” is the third film from Finnish director Alli Haapasalo. With degrees in film from Aalto University and New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts, Haapasalo finds herself drawn towards strong female driven stories. Her debut feature film “Love and Fury” chronicles a female writer’s journey to finding her own voice. Written and directed by a collective of seven writer/directors, her second film “Force of Habit” peeks at hidden moments in the lives of everyday women to expose gender bias and structural misuse of power. Now with the breakout success of “Girl Picture,” from its Sundance win to its release around the globe, Haapasalo is poised to be a filmmaker to watch for years to come.

For this month’s Female Filmmakers in Focus column, RogerEbert.com spoke to Haapasalo over Zoom about reclaiming the Finnish word “tytöt” (girls), achieving true intimacy on film, and the importance of feeling seen on screen.

I really loved that it was set over just three Fridays, and yet so much happens to these girls. When in the process with the screenwriters Ilona Ahti and Daniela Hakulinen did you land on this structure? It felt really honest.

That was actually a really big, key moment for us. In terms of being able to pull it together, we developed it for probably three years before figuring out the structure. The balance between the three characters and the two plots was always off. Every commentator was always saying I want more of this story, or I want more of Emma and Mimmi, and who was the main character? We had a lot of balance problems. I don’t remember who it was who came up with the three Fridays, but when it happened, things just started really falling into place. I would say it was somewhere from the middle towards the end of the writing process. A fairly late invention, but when you think about it now it seems like oh, of course, three Fridays—what a great concept. But it wasn’t the initial concept at all. I think you’re right, that the really short timespan is key in getting to the point of what the teenage experience is, and the adolescent experience, because literally everything is at stake at every moment. Literally every Friday could change your life.

In your director’s statement, you talk about the idea of these three girls being sort of at the cusp of womanhood. They’re not quite girls anymore, but they’re not quite women. They’re exploring all the nooks and crannies of this time in their life. It’s getting better, but you still don’t see that many films really focusing on sexual development. I particularly love the girl who just wants to have pleasure, to find real pleasure.

I think that was the most difficult thing of teenage life in a way, you know, because you feel like a child and an adult at the same time. Everyday, you can fluctuate between the two experiences all the time, too. It’s a difficult thing to be with yourself, when it’s so difficult to define who you are. A friend of mine, who’s a producer, said that she thinks this is a film about the need to be seen. I thought that was pretty well put because whoever is closest to you can help you see yourself. They’re kind of using each other as mirrors, in this aspect, asking what does it mean to be a woman? What does it mean to be a teenager? There’s a lot of no’s put on that age. What it shouldn’t be and how you shouldn’t act and what you shouldn’t wear and what you shouldn’t say and what you shouldn’t do. That can get really exhausting, so as a teenager you’re basically trying to navigate both what it means in the world to be a woman. What it’s like and what is allowed and what’s expected, but at the same time figuring out who you are as a person. Your identity and your sexuality and what you need and what you want. It’s all of those things happening at the same time.

Do you think that with the internet and with all of the ways we have now for communicating that Gen Z is maybe more in touch with seeking female pleasure than previous generations, or at least thinking about it earlier?

Oh, that’s a good question. I’m not sure if they are more in touch with seeking pleasure, but I think they’re better at defining their needs and their rights. They’re not as submissive as my generation. I’m Gen X, or I’m born in 1977, and I spent my whole teenage life thinking that women and men are equal, and then my whole young adult life finding out that wasn’t the case at all. But I look at these women in the leading roles, and they are much better at putting their foot on the ground and demanding what they need and drawing their borders and saying, “You don’t cross this.” I’m all for it. They’re really good at that.

But honestly, I don’t know if they’re better at figuring out the right to female pleasure without punishment, for example. I’m so used to the idea that if a woman says, “I want pleasure,” it’s like you’re immediately a slut. That’s my generation’s judgment on it. I would think that it’s a little bit better, but I also think this is probably a very layered issue and very regional, and big political issue obviously.

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