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Puberty Blues (1981)


Puberty Blues struck a chord with teenage audiences when it was released because its depictions of the surfing subculture, and of ritual experimentations with sex and drugs, were refreshingly frank. The juvenile authenticity of Puberty Blues was attributed to the fact that Kathy Lette and Gabrielle Carey, who wrote the novel on which it was based, were teenagers with firsthand experience of the scene. Bruce Beresford was drawn to directing the film because it was told from a girl’s point-of-view, and provided a perspective of growing up in Cronulla, a part of Sydney far removed from Beresford’s stomping ground of Parramatta.

What makes Puberty Blues so memorable and popular is the way it tapped into the trash-talking vernacular of the surfing subculture, especially as filtered through high school students. It is drenched in Australian slang from the early 1980s, and shows how teenagers appropriated it as a sign of coolness.

Audiences unfamiliar with its subcultural slang are still able to “identify” with the film due to the presence of fairly typical teenage themes like peer and parental pressures, sexual awakening, drug and alcohol use, and so on. Tom O’Regan argues that a film like Puberty Blues “others” the Australian by asking its “audience to play anthropologist to their culture”. The anthropological “work” involved in viewing the film only exists for viewers significantly distanced from the experiences represented. Viewers unsurprisingly distanced were international audiences because they didn’t “get” the film – its Australianisms were far too specific even for the anthropologically minded.

Puberty Blues was aimed at white suburban Australian teenagers upon release (it hit cinemas in the summer holidays of 1981–82). Those very teenagers have grown-up and now commonly look on the film with affection because of the way it never patronised its subjects. If anything, young audiences identify with the film because it never presents blatant messages about how teenagers should behave. Older audiences, or even parents, might look upon its subcultural milieu in anthropological terms, if they can get past the initial anxiety to lock up their kids.

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