I’ll never know what it’s like to grow up as a girl. That’s what movies are for, right? To give us a clue what it’s like to be someone else. For many reasons, these two films — released twenty years apart from one another — shouldn’t be considered the definitive portrait of pre- and postpubescent girlhood. They were both directed by men and adapted from novels also written by men. Given that fact, it’s little wonder that the title characters of these films have mysterious but highly desirable powers ascribed to them. A man spends a little time imagining what it’s like to be a young woman, and before long he’s so sick of the subjugation that he gives her telekinetic abilities. Fanciful or not, it makes a fine metaphor. Male gaze or not, these movies are excellent, and they contrast with each other in highly satisfying ways.
We’ll begin with Brian De Palma’s screen version of Stephen King’s first published novel, Carrie (1976). It tells the story of a high school senior who is only just entering puberty. Her hyper-fundamentalist upbringing has not suitably prepared her for this development, and her peers are less than sympathetic to her confusion and fear. This psychological storm awakens within her the power to move objects with her mind. Unfortunately, she was already a misfit, so now she’s isolated in a couple more ways than she was to begin with. And then there’s the Prom to worry about.
Women are the driving force of this story. There are a few male characters, but their plot function is to carry out the schemes of two of Carrie’s female classmates. One of the girls wants to be nice to her, and the other wants to destroy her. Their separate plans converge on Prom night like flint and steel. Carrie’s unthinkable social triumph is quickly followed by monstrous humiliation, and no one is ready for what she does next.
I like to think of Carrie as the story of Cinderella reimagined as an Elizabethan revenge play. No happy ending here, I’m afraid. The jealous “stepsisters” and embittered “step”mother win, but it’s certainly a Pyrrhic victory. A few details remind the viewer of the slasher genre that was coming into its own around this time, but Carrie feels very different from anything Wes Craven or John Carpenter would make. The horror is tragic and personal, the overall situation much more unsettling than a butcher knife or a car bursting into flame. De Palma’s style is sneaky, beginning as a slightly skewed high school drama before the climax breaks forth with split screens, quick cutting and the persistent rumble of Pino Donaggio’s score. There’s real catharsis in Carrie’s revenge, even as it’s made abundantly clear that she’s damning herself.
Following this is a second, more intimate climax, and here it makes sense to talk about the two outstanding performances in the film. Sissy Spacek, in the title role, naturally exudes the combination of vulnerability, shyness, terror, yearning, and psychosis that make up Carrie White. The audience is always on her side, even when she scares us. As great as she is, though, Piper Laurie’s work as Carrie’s mother might just be what holds the whole film together. Her perverse fanaticism, at once protective and destructive, is the true cause of Carrie’s crackup. The students just pull some (admittedly grotesque and deranged) pranks, whereas Mrs. White has been conditioning Carrie all her life to hate herself. Laurie’s performance is so unnerving, Spacek’s so relatable, that after Carrie walks home covered in a pig’s blood, having just murdered several people, the audience never once feels like the daughter is the scariest person in the house.
What better way to cleanse the palette after a Stephen King bloodbath than with a kids’ movie from the 90s? To ease the whiplash, though, let’s make it an adaptation of a novel by Roald Dahl about another telekinetic girl. Danny DeVito’s Matilda (1996) chronicles the coming-of-age of a precocious autodidact who finds Moby Dick “lovely” (a young lady after my own heart). The adults in her life (typically for a Dahl children’s story) are all, with one obvious exception, utterly horrible human beings. They are obstacles to overcome as Matilda seeks to fulfill her potential at the age of six-and-a-half.
For Carrie, the inciting incident occurred in the girls’ locker room. For Matilda, it happens in her own living room when her family forces her to watch a vacuous game show on TV instead of reading Melville. A moment of clarity — Matilda doesn’t belong here — and a moment of disorientation — where did this power come from, and what else can she do with it? The answers come when she’s sent off to school and meets an even greater adversary than her parents. Her teacher is nice to her, but the school’s principal, Miss Trunchbull (Pam Ferris), despises children, abuses them for the slightest offense, and is less interested in educating them than in breaking their spirits and perhaps scarring them for life. In Matilda she sees not a prodigy but a nuisance, a potential leader for the children who must be broken swiftly.
Matilda, as I’ve hinted, is exceedingly well-read for someone her age, and to deal with the principal, she incorporates lessons from both The Invisible Man and Hamlet. She uses levitating objects to prey upon Trunchbull’s superstitions, and with the aid of a “ghost” she causes the woman to implicate herself for a past crime. The power of the mind overcomes brute force — this story should inspire nerds everywhere.
Carrie is definitely the better film. DeVito would seem to be the weak link here. His performance as Matilda’s father is just fine, but his voiceover role as an omniscient narrator is completely superfluous and does nothing but tell the audience what to think. His direction is more haphazard than De Palma’s, as well, but that’s hardly a fair fight. He makes liberal use of wide-angle shots, Dutch angles, and extreme close-ups to convey the wackiness that the Nickelodeon generation apparently expected from their cinema. There’s also quite a bit of Home Alone-inspired schadenfreude at the expense of humiliated grownups. (Of course, some of that is in the source material.) On the whole, though, DeVito’s film is both sweet and intelligent. Mara Wilson and Embeth Davidtz are perfectly matched as Matilda and Miss Honey (her teacher), respectively. Few things are more pleasant to me than imagining them enjoying an afternoon together — reading Dickens, speaking softly to each other and being cute as all get-out.
So, have I gotten a clue as to what it’s like to be a girl? Is there truth to be glimpsed in these films through several layers of distortion? I’ll say yes to the second question, at least. That truth concerns what it feels like to experience a certain age. The title characters of these films are highly unusual people, but they’re easy to empathize with all the same. We’ve all gone through childhood and adolescence, after all, and wherever we found ourselves on the social ladder, the crises were inevitable, and they sure felt world-shattering at the time. Trying to make sense of yourself, finding your niche, is what growing up is all about. How you feel about that process will determine in what order you choose to watch these films.