Sony // 2002 // 92 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Neal Solon (Retired) // July 5th, 2005
"A provocative new film about what we go through to find out who we are."
Big Girls Don't Cry is the feature-length debut of director Maria von Heland. Using young, unknown actresses as her leads, von Heland tells the story of two young girls who are best friends. One comes from a soon-to-be-broken home, the other from a seemingly perfect family, yet the girls will test your preconceptions about what comes from situations such as these. Things are not always as they seem; while these girls may appear innocent, they are far from it.
Kati (Anna Maria Mühe) and Steffi (Karoline Herfurth) are best friends. One night, while busy being teenagers and experimenting in the worlds of booze, boys, and drugs, they discover that Steffi's father is cheating on her mother with a woman from work. Unsure how to cope with this discovery, Steffi decides to exact revenge. After keying the adulteress' car, Steffi and Kati head home for the night. The next morning, Steffi drags Kati to the woman's apartment, and the real revenge begins. The woman's naïve and idealistic daughter, Tessa (Josefine Domes), quickly becomes an easy target. As Steffi's attacks on Tessa become dangerous, Kati becomes uncomfortable, second-guessing her life-long friend's actions. In the end, she must choose between blindly following Steffi and doing what she knows is right.
The two young girls at the center of this film, Steffi and Kati, stand in stark contrast to one another. Steffi is a redhead; Kati is a bleached-blonde. Steffi is well off; Kati is from the working class. Steffi has a seemingly nuclear family; Kati's family is disintegrating. Steffi's parents trust her completely; Kati's constantly question her about her lifestyle. Were one forced to bet on which of these two girls would turn out better in the end, the smart money would be on Steffi. Why? Convention tells us that Steffi's environment is more conducive to producing well-adjusted children.
Of course, convention is dead wrong. Steffi is greedy, spoiled, and unprepared for the real world. At the slightest provocation, she becomes a vile, bitter young woman with thoughts of no one but herself. She fires her rage blindly at anyone remotely connected to those who hurt her. In this case, she victimizes the innocent daughter of the woman having an affair with her father. Kati, on the other hand, retains a grip on her humanity, and sees the danger of Steffi's decline, finally sneaking behind her best friend's back to help Tessa, the target of Steffi's ire.
Big Girls Don't Cry has the potential to be an intriguing story of a young woman dealing with the secret knowledge of her dad's infidelity. To some extent, it fulfills this potential. Both Steffi and Kati are believable characters, as is their victim Tessa. Each personifies traits or characteristics we have all encountered at some point in our lives. Steffi is vindictive. Kati is wary of her friend's decisions, and wrestles with the question of what being a true friend means. Tessa...well, she is the sacrificial lamb, taking the brunt of Steffi's wrath in place of those whom Steffi cannot punish. We can relate to each of these girls, even as extreme representations of people we see around us.
The movie's shortcomings, however, are in its story and its presentation. Director Maria von Heland seems to fancy herself the new, young, hip European director. The film's look often reminded me of Soderbergh's Traffic, with its intentional use of saturating blue and red hues throughout certain scenes. Von Heland makes liberal use of quick cuts and stylish cinematography that is reminiscent of music videos. In the end, this style seems to overpower the content. The quick cuts make the film seem more episodic than it need be, with each "episode" focusing on one or two vengeful acts. Because of this, the film feels driven by overwrought, exaggerated actions, rather than by the characters, which are its biggest assets.
The video itself is pretty. Urban Germany comes across as a gritty but mostly inviting place, and the film makes good use of various recurring settings: the girls' apartments, a club, an artist's studio, and an abandoned office building. The colors are rich, and the occasional specks on the film are barely noticeable.
The soundtrack also lends some credence to the idea that von Heland wants to appeal to a hip, younger generation. The songs included throughout the film are mostly English-language, pop sounding songs performed by Swedish bands (von Heland herself is Swedish), the most widely-known of which are the Cardigans (decidedly too hip for most of von Heland's target audience here in the States). Also making a few appearances on the soundtrack is Josefine Domes, who plays Tessa in the film, who performs solid renditions of a few originals and the standard "These Boots Are Made for Walking." The songs comes through loud and clear, as does the dialogue. The surrounds kick in incidentally, but most of the important information is delivered in the front of the soundstage.
Columbia TriStar marketed this film as a "Special Edition," and it lives up to that name in the extras department. On tap are eight deleted scenes, a video montage, a photo gallery, and interviews with Maria von Heland and the three young actresses at the center of this film. The eight deleted scenes are short, but provide some added context for relationships between characters. A musical performance by Josefine Domes is perhaps the most interesting, but none of the scenes seem like "throwaways."
The behind-the-scenes video montage is a seven-minute piece of fluff, as is the typical photo gallery. The real meat of the extras comes in the interviews. There is an interview with each of the main female players in the film -- the director and the three young stars. The interviews range from a brief two minutes to almost five, but they are all insightful. Topics covered include the genesis of the film, the discovery of Anna Maria Mühe, and the young womens' understanding of their roles.
Also on hand are filmographies of the film's stars, which underscore the whole cast's relative inexperience, and three trailers for Columbia TriStar releases, including the English-language trailer for Big Girls Don't Cry.
Having watched this film and been drawn into the performances of Anna Maria Mühe and Karoline Herfurth, I am forced to wonder if my standards for acting are somehow lowered for foreign-language films. It seems a silly thought -- but is there any way I can really know how well or how convincingly an actress is delivering her lines in German if I don't speak German? This is the first film appearance for Anna Maria Mühe, who was discovered in a diner by Maria von Heland. I, for one, can hardly imagine a young actor with no formal training or experience giving a performance that comes off as naturally and effortlessly as Mühe's. Perhaps there is some awkwardness in her delivery that I fail to notice because of the language barrier, but I doubt it. I was consistently impressed by her performance; the other young actresses are likewise consistent.
Beyond that, the only caveat that I have is that the film seems a bit oversexed. Four teenage girls, younger than the age of 18, are depicted at points in this film in very suggestive and erotic ways. Some may claim that this is only reality. While this may be true, it doesn't mean I'm entirely comfortable watching it on my television screen.
What I see here is a film that received a surprisingly solid DVD release here in the United States, probably in hopes of riding the coattails of Catherine Hardwicke's Thirteen, which deals with some of the same themes. That said, Big Girls Don't Cry does deserve some attention of its own. The young leads do a remarkable job in bringing depth and realism to their characters, although the writing and editing tend to work against them, painting an extreme and action-oriented picture. The disc is worth a rental, even if it's just to see some of the promising young talent from Germany.
The actresses involved are free to go without further delay. Maria von Heland, you are hereby sentenced to five hours of "substance over style" training, and you are no longer allowed within 100 meters of any incarnation of MTV. However, your service in bringing the talents of this cast to the court's attention will be duly noted. Court is adjourned!
Review content copyright © 2005 Neal Solon; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2014 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
* 1.85:1 Anamorphic
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (German)
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (French)
Running Time: 92 Minutes
Release Year: 2002
MPAA Rating: Rated R
* Eight Deleted Scenes
* "Behind the Scenes" Video Montage
* Interviews with Director Maria von Heland and Stars Anna Maria Mühe, Karoline Herfurth, and Josefine Domes
* Photo Gallery