Monday, February 17, 2014

Reeling Backward: "Gregory's Girl" (1980)

Characters are at the center of writer/director Bill Forsyth's movies. They don't announce themselves, but just are. They don't do things to impress an audience, but simply exist and are observed.

"Gregory's Girl" was Forsyth's breakout film, going on to win the screenplay award at the BAFTAs, the Brit equivalent of the Oscars.  It's a largely story-less affair about the titular character, a gawky Scottish teen who becomes infatuated with the girl who took his spot on the football team. It's not so much that he loves her, but he falls in love with the idea of her, and that singularity of purpose gives momentum to a life that had been rather rudderless.

We all knew, or were, the kid like Gregory in high school. Tall and gangly, he skates by on an insouciant grin and a puckish sense of humor. Not exactly popular and not really shunned, he is generally well-liked by the peers who bother to give him any thought at all. His closest relationship is with his 10-year-old sister Madeline (Allison Forster), who offers him advice on clothes and girls.

John Gordon Sinclair shows loads of personality as Gregory, giving him all sorts of twinkles and goofy tics you'll not find on the pages of any screenplay.

Dorothy is the object of his affections, who is drawn to a notice for tryouts for the football team after the coach (Jake D'Arcy) demotes Gregory from scoring forward to goalie. Gregory is not particularly bothered about losing his position, rightly viewing the game as being just that in terms of importance in life. He shows absolutely no ego about being replaced by a girl, because (again rightly) he proclaims her to be a much better player than him.

Dorothy (Dee Hepburn) gains a great deal of celebrity around the school, becoming the object of a slick student reporter who manages to weasel out a disguised date proposal less than two minutes into the interview. Her photograph also becomes a hot item in the black market being run in the boys' lavatory, along with doughnuts made by Gregory's best friend, Steve (William Greenlees), whose mind is as occupied by cooking as Gregory's is by Dorothy. (Alas, candied almonds are not looked upon with similar fervor.)

Steve has a side deal with the school headmaster, who receives a steady supply of confections, apparently for his looking the other way about the market. This is just one of the many quirky little elements that Forsyth introduces into the film, such as a student wandering around the halls dressed in a giant penguin costume, for no reason I can grasp. It adds an element of fantasy into the proceedings, but also somehow grounds them with authenticity. You feel like you could spend time in any Glasgow suburban school and find these sorts of unique characteristics.

The story finishes its wandering little journey with Gregory ending up with another girl, Susan (Clare Grogan), after an elaborate fake-out where Gregory thinks he's going on a date with Dorothy, but keeps getting passed around from girl to girl, until the one who really wants him gets her wish.

Though it's undepicted in the movie, it seems clear that the girls had a confab to discuss Gregory and his ardor for Dorothy, and Susan's attraction to Gregory, and decided this would be the best way to steer things in the intended direction without any feelings getting hurt. It's yet another piece of evidence that females are much more sensible and proactive in their approach to romance, even at a young age.

Acting as a sort of Greek chorus are a pair of younger lads who observe Gregory's various intrepid exploits and look upon him as a sort of love god. Their own attempts at flirtation are rather disastrous, talking to girls about things like how fast the snot comes out of your nose when you sneeze and how they slay calves for veal.

Dorothy herself remains something of a mystery. She doesn't really appear to care about anything other than playing football, and seems to regard the attention from the awkward boy flattering without really holding any appeal for her. She spent her summer in Italy, and has clearly moved past these hyperactive Scot boys.

Normally I grow bored with movies that just sort of make lazy figure-eights of storytelling, and I did feel a little of that watching "Gregory's Girl." But eventually I realized that this film is not about moving things from Point A to Point B, but painting a picture that audiences will recognize as a mirror.

Forsyth would go on to use the same technique with the seminal "Local Hero" a few years later, where his filmmaking ethos found its pinnacle.

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