According to a recent study by the USC Annenberg Inclusion Initiative, film criticism is a field overwhelmingly dominated by (surprise, surprise) white men. Not anymore. In Refinery29's new series, our female movie critic will give fresh consideration to the movies we love, hate, or love to hate. It's time for a rewrite.
For all its breezy bike rides, stolen kisses, and swimming hole shenanigans, Now and Then is actually a pretty dark film, and not just because a large chunk of it takes place in a cemetery.
Written by I. Marlene King and directed by Lesli Linka Glatter, the coming-of-age tale deals with the fundamentals of late girlhood, including body image, emerging sexuality, and friendship, treating them with the same gravitas as more mature themes — death doesn’t get special treatment over the drama of budding breasts. Because when you’re 12, both carry equal weight.
That delicate portrayal of that pivotal time in girls’ lives — one still rarely seen on screen — is what has given Now and Then cult status among women of my generation over 20 years after its release. I only recently learned that the film was written, directed and produced by women, which makes it all the more resonant today.
And yet, when it hit theaters in October 1995, the film was poorly received by critics. At the Chicago Sun-Times Roger Ebert called the film “a gimmicky sitcom,” pointing to Man in The Moon and Stand By Me (both directed by men) as better examples of the genre. TV Guide gave it two stars, sneering at the “sappy, derivative girls' coming-of-age tale set in the groovy '70s.”
Even good reviews, like the one Edward Guthmann wrote for the San Francisco Chronicle, dismissed the “sprightly comedy” as “not particularly deep.”
Those are not adequate labels for a movie that meaningfully tackles themes of grief, murder, and loneliness in addition to its portrayal of adolescent turmoil. Add to that the fact that Warner Bros., parent company to Now and Then distributor New Line Cinema, hadn't cleared the film for digital distribution until August 2019, when Netflix announced it would be available (rendering it nearly impossible to watch), and it’s hard not to come to the conclusion that girls’ stories have a much higher bar to clear if they want the respect afforded to their male counterparts.
Female critic Caryn James also had issues with the film, but for very different reasons. In her New York Times review, she wrote: “The film is based on the solid idea that girls need coming-of-age stories too. But this one so resembles the boys' coming-of-age film Stand by Me that the publicity material actually calls attention to the similarity, as if giving girls their own movie meant following a boys' model.”
It’s a fair point to make. Both Now and Then and Rob Reiner’s Stand By Me feature a group of sleuthy friends investigating the circumstances of a boys’ violent death; the protagonists are the same age, and in each case, there’s an epilogue explaining how they eventually drifted apart. But reclaiming a narrative that has so long been associated with men holds is its own power. Should girls have their own specific stories told, in all their diverse, complex and multi-faceted forms? Of course. And slowly, those projects are coming to light in acclaimed films like Greta Gerwig’s Ladybird and Bo Burnham’s Eighth Grade. But Now and Then helped pave the way.
The “Now” in Now and Then is 1991. Childhood friends Teeny (Melanie Griffith), Roberta (Rosie O’Donnell), Samantha (Demi Moore), and Chrissy (Rita Wilson) reunite in their hometown of Shelby, IN for the birth of the latter’s first child. They haven’t been together in nearly a decade. Teeny, a TV star, is busy dealing with her third divorce. Samantha, a science fiction author, avoids the small-town claustrophobia at all costs. Only Roberta, a gynecologist who lives nearby, sees Chrissy, a housewife who married her middle school sweetheart, with any kind of regularity.
The film masterfully captures that awkward reunion between once-close friends who’ve drifted apart. You know some of their most intimate secrets from childhood, from their first heartbreak to how they like their ice cream. But the name of their most recent boyfriend? Shrug.
To cope with the unease, they start to reminisce, which brings Samantha, who narrates the extended flashback in a now-dated voiceover, to remember the summer of 1970 — the “Then.”
It wasn’t just any old summer. It marked the grey, fluid area between childhood and full adolescence, when they realize that their parents aren’t perfect, and that sometimes, bad things happen. It’s the year they discover boys, when Teeny (Thora Birch) pads her bra with vanilla pudding, and Roberta (Christina Ricci) binds her breasts with tape — until Scott Wormer (Devon Sawa) comes along, that is. Samantha’s (Gaby Hoffmann) parents get divorced, leaving her with emotional issues that will haunt her for years. Chrissy helps Roberta deal with finding out the truth about her own mom’s death years earlier. And they all come together to solve the mystery of “Dear Johnny” and Crazy Pete.
The driving conflict centers around the girls’ obsession with what really happened to a boy whose grave they spot in the cemetery while playing at midnight; the ghost story/mystery hints at King’s future gig as the creator of Freeform’s Pretty Little Liars.
Now and Then was Glatter’s feature debut, and the director has since gone on to direct some of the gold standards of prestige TV, including Homeland, The Walking Dead, True Blood, Masters of Sex, The Leftovers, and an absolute classic Mad Men episode, “Guy Walks Into An Advertising Agency.” (Yes, the one with the John Deere tractor and the severed foot.) But her deft talent for teasing out wordless conflict is apparent even here — when it comes to pre-pubescent girls, subtext is key.
Forget Sex and the City or Girls: This unsung classic brilliantly understands the dynamics of female friendships. Even within the close-knit friend group, there are cliques. Teeny and Samantha, who both have family trouble, form one unit; Roberta and Chrissy another. You can see the beginnings of what will eventually divide them: The first two want nothing more than to get out of Shelby, and live bigger, bolder lives. To the latter, loyalty matters above all. It’s because of a pact Chrissy suggests that they all end up coming together nearly two decades later to help her through the last days of her pregnancy. She alone has conformed to the expectations society had for women at the time they were all growing up. And to young girls watching the film in the late ‘90s, Now and Then conveyed that they had options.
The movie still elicits such strong reactions from those who grew up watching it – often repeatedly at group sleepovers and birthday parties. The opening bars of “Sugar, Sugar” by The Archies instantly transport me to that scene of the group painting the garage in oversized shirts and jean shorts.
Watching Now and Then today, it’s striking to to see how talented these performers were at such a young age. (And how many fun cameos there were: Young Brendan Fraser! Goth Janeane Garofalo! Leisure Suit Hank Azaria!) Ricci nails the part of the cocky tomboy who isn’t afraid to roll around in the mud, a veneer that barely conceals some very deep pain. Hoffman is perfect as the girl coping with an isolation she doesn’t quite understand. Birch has phenomenal onscreen charisma — it’s easy to believe that Teeny would go on to find the fame she craves. Even Aston-Moore, who gets short shrift as the prudish Chrissy, provides comic relief with her impeccable timing.
It’s unfortunate that out of the four of them, only Ricci and Hoffman have enjoyed any kind of real Hollywood career. Birch has been steadily working, but her name doesn’t hold the same cachet it did when she was a promising child actress. As for Aston-Moore, she died unexpectedly in 2007, at age 26.
Most critics dismissed the bookend portrayals of the four as adults as unnecessary bulk. And it’s true that their gifted younger counterparts are more than capable of shouldering the action. But it’s a pleasure watching these four legendary women interact.Moore’s quirky neuroticism and amazing all-black wardrobe are a treat to watch. Wilson is hilarious as Chrissy, a more ‘90s version of her own mother, the kind of woman who refuses to hear swearing, and swoops in with petit fours on a platter the second she has company. Griffith is the very definition of a Hollywood star, so that was obvious casting. And seeing O’Donnell in her movie prime triggers cravings for a Harriet the Spy/ Sleepless in Seattle double feature.
The trouble with nostalgia is that it tends to give everything a rosy filter, and not everything in Now and Then holds up. For one thing, like most coming-of-age stories, it’s overwhelmingly white, a point that Zoe Samudzi hammers home in her compelling essay over at Broadly, called “What White Girl Coming-Of-Age Movies Don’t Do For A Black Girl:” “These films about white female adolescence and teenhood revolve around particular experiences of and meditations on dissatisfaction and boredom, using nostalgia as their primary pull. And yet for me, their projections of high school misery and endless summers only served as a reminder that Black girls are never afforded the kind of ordinariness that would make them relatable to white audiences.”
What’s more, those experiences are also heteronormative, although that wasn’t supposed to be the case. King actually told Refinery29 in an interview that she has originally written Roberta as an out lesbian, something that was then cut from the film because it didn’t play well with test audiences at the time. Were the movie to be shot today, that element may have remained — and the film would be better and more complex for it.
Finally, the constant fat-shaming of Chrissy is an aspect of the film that bothered me even back then — although as a chubby girl myself, I would never have admitted it, lest I be labeled a “Chrissy” rather than a cooler “Samantha.”
Still, Now and Then holds a special place in the canon of girlhood movies, one that is only now starting to get the respect it deserves. The recent critical success of Lady Bird and Eighth Grade is significant, not just because of the representation they provide, but because these are movies that might have been panned in the past. Attitudes are shifting. That was then. And this is now.