Color, 1980, 94 mins. 38 secs.
Directed by Ron Maxwell
Starring Tatum O'Neal, Kristy McNichol, Armand Assante, Matt Dillon, Krista Errickson, Cynthia Nixon
Cinématographe (UHD & Blu-ray) (US R0/A 4K/HD) / WS (2.35:1) (16:9),

The golden age of the summer camp movies, Little Darlingsthe turn of the '70s into the 1980s was filled with twists on the setting like Meatballs, Friday the 13th, and Gorp, among others. Little DarlingsAt the same time, theaters were a fertile ground for realistic looks at teen life, often with a heavy dramatic angle like Foxes or Over the Edge. A truly unique and still beloved entry from both of those cycles is 1980's Little Darlings, which mixes summer camp hijinks with a still moving and frank look at the passage to sexual maturity as seen through the eyes of adolescent girls.

The setup here is straight out of The Parent Trap as a rivalry develops right away at Camp Little Wolf for girls between two new arrivals, well-to-do Ferris (O'Neal, now a young adult far from her Oscar-winning role in Paper Moon) and working class Angel (McNichol, during the last year of her popular TV series Family). Thanks to the instigation of another camper, the two girls start a wager to see who will lose her virginity first that summer, with the rest of the campers dividing up into teams to root for their favorite. Ferris sets her sights on older camp counselor Gary (Assante), while Angel picks Randy (Dillon), a boy camper she meets during a covert trip to town for contraceptives. However, neither of them find the contest will take them where they Little Darlingsexpected.

A lot more sensitive and nuanced than its teen sex comedy marketing might lead you to believe, Little Darlings benefits tremendously from the Little Darlingsskilled performances of its two leads and its naturalistic portrayal of summer camp, with an appealing spectrum of campers among its supporting characters (including a very young Cynthia Nixon way, way before Sex and the City). Also effective is its pop song soundtrack (augmented by a score by the great Charles Fox), which unfortunately turned out to be a legal stumbling block after its first appearance on VHS (with a substitute tape reissue swapping out many songs and a DVD or Blu-ray version kept out of reach for decades). The film also proved to be a solid calling card for NYU grad Ron Maxwell, making his feature directing debut here before the following year's The Night the Lights Went Out in Georgia (also with McNichol and a title plagued by even more severe music licensing issues), the studio-cursed Kidco, and two of the most popular Civil War epics, Gettysburg and Gods and Generals. The sense of setting here is still incredibly potent, especially for anyone grew up in the South (this was shot in Georgia) with a unique distillation of how those humid summers feel.

Little DarlingsAs mentioned above, Little Darlings has been somewhat jinxed over the years with its VHS editions brutally cropped from the original scope aspect ratio and the more readily available options missing some key songs, most significantly "Let Your Love Flow" over the end credits. The film fared better on TV and streaming, with a nice 2.35:1 edition with the original soundtrack turning up on Cinemax for years along with occasional Little Darlingsstreaming platform appearances and an airing on TCM. Even better is its return to U.S home video as a 4K UHD and Blu-ray combo set from Vinegar Syndrome sublabel Cinématographe (its inaugural release), featuring a new 4K transfer from the original camera negative that bests the earlier HD version out there. Again the soundtrack is fully intact here, and the quality is excellent with the addition of HDR for the UHD really bringing out those vibrant shades of green and yellow in the camp scenes. It's a real joy to watch. The DTS-HD MA 2.0 English track is also in great condition (it's still theatrical mono as it always has been, not stereo as the specs announced), with optional English SDH subtitles provided.

A new audio commentary by Maxwell is somewhat sparse but valuable for his memories of how he chose the location, the rationale behind his shot choices, the musical relationship between the score and "needle drops," and plenty more. You might be better off instead beginning with the second commentary by Millie De Chirico of I Saw What You Did podcast; since she's based out of Georgia and spent years doing fine work on TCM Underground, she's a great addition here with a packed track covering even the most minor of actors, the Little Darlingsbackground behind the song choices, and pointing out details about the locations (some of which are no longer or changed dramatically). It's a great listen and actually increases your appreciation for the film even more. Also included is a batch of alternate scenes (5m53s), presented at 2.35:1 with timecode, more or less reflecting what was added to the TV broadcast version to make up for all the sex-related footage that had to be deleted; it's nice to Little Darlingssee here in much better quality than what was aired. Maxwell also provides an 11m14s audio piece about his reaction to the TV cut (which was done without notifying him) and the reasons behind cutting the most significant scenes. A 54m33s video interview with Maxwell starts with his early days in dramatic television and goes through his path to this film and its shooting in Georgia, which laid the groundwork for the rest of his career. It's a solid piece, though there's a loud thumping sound on the microphone on and off throughout. In the video essay "Don’t Let the Title Fool You: Little Darlings Beyond the Teen Sex Comedy" (19m47s), Samm Deighan skillfully tackles the prevalence of teen movies of all stripes in the late '70s and throughout the '80s, the treatment of teen female sexuality here, related drama "issues" films like the made-for-TV movies with Linda Blair, and the state of child actors at the time who transitioned into more mature roles. Also included in the set is a booklet with insightful essays by The Black List Kate Hagen and another TCM alumnus, Quatoyiah Murry, who present their own readings of the film and its significance as both a teen movie and a major contribution to '80s female cinematic perspectives.

Reviewed on February 18, 2024.

Mondo Digital Reviews Mondo Digital Links Frequently Asked Questions