#NASTYWOMEN: COLUMN 2: THE HAIRY BIRD (1998) REVIEW
DIR: SARAH KERNOCHAN
In this column I’ll be focusing on women in film; profiling wonderful directors, writers and characters. While I’ll be open to exploring great female characters in all films, I’m going to concentrate on and celebrate women surrounded by women.
It’s 1963 and Odie (Gaby Hoffman) is being hauled to an all-girls prep boarding school in Connecticut because “things were getting too heavy with Denis the penis”. At least that’s how her new roommates Verena (Kirsten Dunst) and Tinka (Monica Keena – so beautiful she actually kills me) describe it. Initially traumatised at the mere thought of being herded to such a ‘prison’, Odie soon finds herself around likeminded young women – including Momo (Merritt Weaver) and Tweety (Heather Matarazzo) who just happen to bring out the best in her.
The group have their own secret society called the DAR (I accidentally typed DEA – I’ve been watching too much Breaking Bad recently), shorthand for Daughters of the American Ravioli (they have access to a LOT of canned ravioli in their meeting space above the school’s kitchen). It’s here where they discuss their hopes, dreams and aspirations, and pledge to help each other achieve their ambitions for their whole lives to come. Their motto is “no more little white gloves”; there’s no way they’re partaking in ‘finishing school’, they’re all paving their way to successful futures.
So you can imagine how things are shaken up when, by chance, Tweety overhears that Miss Godard’s is merging with St Ambrose Academy (“they’re going to have to call it Miss Gonads!”). This news divides the group; Tinka, Tweety and Odie aren’t so bothered by the thought of having boys around, but Verena and Momo are outraged. The dialogue in this scene is so wonderful and inspiring, Momo arguing that instead of trying to learn more, everyone will be killing themselves to be cute. Verena agrees; “Then you need all this equipment to push up the tits and blitz and spray the pits!” “Real life is boy girl, boy, girl!” Tinka argues, but it’s Verena’s final punch that hits home; “NO, real life is boy ON TOP of girl.” You said it, sister.
I found this scene, and the arguments surrounding co-education, quite interesting. While I do love the sentiment behind Verena and Momo’s opinions, it forced me to think back to my own education. I went to a public, co-ed high school, so was surrounded by boys, which was normal, a lot of them were my good friends. Were they a distraction? Not personally. Can I understand how they potentially could be for the reasons outlined by Verena and Momo? Sure. Let’s not forget that The Hairy Bird was set in the early 1960s, where the young women could legitimately fear that they wouldn’t be accepted into college as young men would eat up the limited places from their school. Food for thought. Back to it…
The two schools throw a function together to see how everyone gets along, but Verena and Momo hatch a plan to make sure St Ambrose comes out looking less than favourable. Of course they succeed, but in true bullshit fashion, it gets swept under the rug and the merge is still set to go ahead. That’s until Odie decides enough is enough. All Odie wanted when she arrived at Miss Godard’s was to become an ‘ex-virgin’, by the end of it she’s started a revolution.
The Hairy Bird was one of the most iconic films of my teenage years, but upon my re-watch I realised that it packs so much more of a punch than my younger self was able to comprehend. The women in this film are all fabulous, strong and intelligent, the men, stupid and annoying (love it). Writer/director (and Oscar winner!) Sarah Kernochan has put together a remarkable film full of substance, rich in feminism and with an awesome ensemble of actors (and it’s her first feature film, amazing).
Some other honourable mentions include the school’s headmistress Miss McVane (Lynn Redgrave), who enforces the rules while encouraging the young women to be free thinking and open minded, and it wouldn’t be a female centric 90s film without Rachael Leigh Cook, who plays Abby Sawyer, the uptight hall monitor who is constantly trying to get the others in trouble. It’s also really nice to see Abby throw in her badge of honour, towards the end of the film, to join forces with the young women she so desperately had it in for. Let’s work together, not against each other. Oh and let’s not forget a super young Vincent Kartheiser (yes, there is at least one man in this film), playing a quirky love interest for Tinka.
The Hairy Bird manages to be very funny, bright and bubbly, but all the while packing some serious substance. It’s fun, it looks great (that 1960s charm!), and has what is still and will forever be, a relevant message. You might not have heard of this underrated gem, but now that you have, get on it. And if not? Up your ziggy with a wah wah brush.
Chloe Sesta Jacobs is a people and culture geek who loves writing about film and usually does so with her two miniature sausage dogs lying all over her. Chloe really enjoys world cinema and has been heard to say “if it doesn’t have subtitles, don’t talk to me”. She also tweets a LOT at @csestajacobs.