“By No Means a Film Against Boys”: Alli Haapasalo on Girl Picture
Girl Picture, the sophomore feature from Finnish director Alli Haapasalo, ditches hokey coming of age conventions while preserving the crushing emotional weight inherent to being a teenage girl. The film’s protagonists—best friends Mimmi (Aamu Milonoff) and Rönkkö (Eleonoora Kauhanen), alongside Mimmi’s lover Emma (Linnea Leino)—navigate the threshold of impending adulthood, oscillating wildly between manic self-centeredness and graceful altruism, encapsulating the disparate emotional poles one must traverse to arrive at self-actualized adulthood.
What truly sets Girl Picture apart from the otherwise cloyingly twee coming of age landscape is its depiction of teenage sexual awakenings as something that can be natural, pleasurable and rooted in total autonomy for its 17/18-year-old characters, a far cry from depictions of self-conscious handwringing over being a late bloomer or preoccupations over assuming the perfect sexual persona for some swoopy-haired boy. The young women in Girl Picture take their sex lives into their own hands, engaging in intercourse that is equal parts awkward, embarrassing and exciting without sustaining any permanent dings to their self-esteem as a result of these imperfect encounters. It’s hard to recall other coming of age films that feature a youthful lesbian relationship that doesn’t succumb to sensationalist tragedy, let alone one that also includes a straight girl futilely coaching her inexperienced hookups through mediocre cunnilingus.
Girl Picture opens at New York’s IFC Center via Strand Releasing on August 12. I spoke to Haapasalo via email, a conversation that provided insight on the process of choreographing the film’s sex scenes, casting teenage boys as largely supporting characters and selecting songs for the film’s femme-centric soundtrack.
Filmmaker: Can you speak a bit about the development of Girl Picture? Your debut feature Love and Fury came out in 2016, and you’ve kept busy with collaborative projects, short films and episodic work since then. What got you interested in helming this film specifically, and what was the timeline behind getting it made in the wake of COVID?
Haapasalo: Screenwriters Ilona Ahti and Daniela Hakulinen approached me in 2014 with a treatment for the film. (Back then I was in the process of finishing the script for Love and Fury, which was greenlit in 2015 and brought me back to Finland from New York, where I had been living since 2004.) I immediately got interested, because already the treatment had a promise of a screenplay with a fresh look at adolescence. There were two things I was particularly interested in at that time: focusing on female driven stories with a strong point of view, and finding a story that would concentrate around a theme and find complexity in the emotional experiences of the characters rather than feel very plot-y or scripted. (I had struggled with the size and scope of the story in Love and Fury.) Ilona, Daniela and I first developed the script for three years without a production company. In 2017, Citizen Jane Productions got on board, and finally we were green lit in early 2020. That’s, of course, exactly when COVID hit Finland. But the pandemic was very well dealt with there, and I was able to work largely unaffected by it. There were, of course, extra costs due to COVID, but artistically the pandemic didn’t affect the film and we finished it on schedule in the summer of 2021.
Filmmaker: It’s refreshing to see teenage girl protagonists grappling with their sexuality without the overwhelming presence of shame. How did you—alongside screenwriters Ilona Ahti and Daniela Hakulinen and the wonderful cast—navigate teenage awkwardness without ever tipping over into full-blown self-loathing?
Haapasalo: I think self-loathing and shame come from the outside. I mean, teenage girls have learned to feel shame and self-loathing, but not because they have these emotions naturally—it’s because the world around us has taught us to feel this way. To go against that was one of my main motivations. The writers and I were all tired of the familiar narrative of women as victims, and we wanted these girls to be able to explore their sexuality completely free from danger or punishment. It’s easy to find depictions of female sexuality as something over the top, shocking or destructive, rather than something natural, sometimes problematic, beautiful and that belongs to everybody. The film tries to look at female desire and pleasure without any judgment or fetishizing. Because that’s the gaze of the film, the same attitude is reflected in the character’s attitudes as well. Rönkkö of course has many very awkward and even humiliating experiences with multiple partners. But she doesn’t have to feel shame, because to her, it’s a legitimate process of self-discovery.
Filmmaker: Similarly, I’d love to hear about how you prepared for and orchestrated the sex scenes. They are never one-note: hues of hesitation, horniness, embarrassment and disappointment can all be present during these encounters. The sex also varies wildly between Rönkkö’s heterosexual exploits versus Mimmi and Emma’s lesbian relationship. How did you guide the actors through these fluctuating sensations and emotions?
Haapasalo: My main focus in the making of the sex scenes was to create an atmosphere where the actors could concentrate on their acting, nothing else. Too often the concentration in sex scenes goes to worrying about safety, awkwardness and issues with nudity. My cast was young and didn’t have experience doing sex scenes—Eleonoora Kauhanen, who plays Rönkkö, hadn’t even made a film before, and now she was going to have sex scenes with three different partners! So, the very first thing was being completely transparent about my artistic approach to create trust and a safe space.
My approach to the sex scenes was always trying to capture the emotion of the character rather than the action that’s going on. I don’t think it’s very telling where someone’s finger or tongue is going—it’s much more telling how people are feeling about it. Of course, you need to see enough to understand the action as well! But there are many options for framing it and, in this film, all of the simulated sex is outside of the frame. You also never see the camera looking at people in an oppressing or objectifying way. It’s a very respectful observer. Also, before I even started casting, I had decided that the film would have no nudity. I have absolutely nothing against nudity in film, but for this film about 17-18-year old women it felt like the right choice narratively—and it definitely helped the actors feel at ease.They never had to think about what their bodies looked like on camera, so they could concentrate on their performance. Also, shots of breasts or other intimate body parts rarely tell the story as effectively as people’s faces do.
To create the choreography, I worked closely with intimacy coordinator Pia Rickman. She had wonderful techniques for creating the illusion of what was happening, and I loved the rehearsal process that she took the actors and me on. Any awkwardness people may have had went away because we simply concentrated on the narrative and how to tell it. We actually had fun figuring out the details—it is an exciting professional challenge to create a physical choreography that makes room for emotion and performance. The actors were encouraged to take part in the making of the choreography, but also encouraged to opt out any time they’d feel like it’s more of a burden than a privilege.
Filmmaker: I noticed that the presence of teenage boys is quite muted in the film. They exist as friends at parties and casual hookups (particularly for Rönkkö), but don’t ever take precedence over the girls’ relationships to each other. What felt important about keeping this film tethered to a uniquely female coming of age experience, one seemingly impenetrable by boys?
Haapasalo: We simply wanted to focus on the experience of the girls, something the writers and I were familiar with. When I was in high school in the 90s, there weren’t so many girl characters to identify with, and that was one of the main reasons I wanted to make this film. We also wanted a positive depiction of a same sex couple on screen. If this film had been made in my youth, the characters of Emma or Mimmi would automatically have been a boy. An added perk from their relationship was that instead of having one or two girl characters, we were able to have three. That gave us even more opportunities to study different aspects of girlhood and womanhood. Girl Picture is by no means a film against boys—it’s just a film that focuses on girls, and boys are supporting characters. One of the male actors—who at a young age has already had many main roles in films—wonderfully pointed out that he was happy to assume a supporting role for a change. He was well aware of the fact that more commonly, men take leading roles and women take supporting roles. It was important to me that the supporting characters would not be shallow caricatures but would have dimension and complexity as well.
Filmmaker: I’m intrigued by the film’s music cues, which feel very true to how we engage with songs as teenagers: singing aloud in a car with your best friends, being empowered by a song through headphones, having certain moments play alongside an imaginary soundtrack in your head. How were these songs selected, and what inspired you to depict the vital importance of music within the teenage experience?
Haapasalo: Your description of how we engage with songs as teenagers is perfect. The aesthetics of the film as a whole was built on what my artistic team and I felt was the true teenage experience. For the songs, that meant going head-on toward big emotions. I asked writer, director and music supervisor Jan Forsström to get on board to find songs. He has an enormous library in his head, as well as an amazing ability to find songs that sound like a million bucks but don’t cost it (our budget was very modest). It was Jan’s suggestion that the soundtrack wouldn’t feature any cis male voices. I thought it very appropriate for the film that all the artists are female or queer or both. When selecting the songs, I kept reminding myself to not go for subtle or cool. Any time I was afraid that the emotional impact of some choice was too pathetic, I told myself to turn it up a notch. Editor Samu Heikkilä was very key in making this work—he cuts to music beautifully and really knows how to walk the tightrope of what is enough and what is too much. The end credit song was made for the film by a Finnish feminist rap duo, SOFA. It’s too bad that the international audience can’t understand their wonderful lyrics, which are so appropriate for the film, but I hope that their positive and fearless attitude still comes through.