Cinema: Growing Up

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Directed by Ronald F. Maxwell

Screenplay by Kimi Peck and Dalene Young

Kristy McNichol and Tatum O'Neal, the stars of Little Darlings, have been among the best child actors of their generation, but now they are growing up. Like the Shirley Temples and Margaret O'Briens before them, they have a difficult passage ahead. For some child actors, aging can be a positive process: youthful skills blossom into full-fledged creative maturity. Others are not so fortunate. Aging can also rob child actors of their spontaneity and innocence; yesterday's young performers can all too easily become the mannered actors of tomorrow.

By appearing together in this comedy about sexual discovery at summer camp, McNichol and O'Neal demand that audiences compare them. Both actresses are at a transition point, just past their mid-teens, and both have well-tailored parts. McNichol plays a tomboy on the brink of womanhood—a character patterned after her role of Buddy on TV's Family. O'Neal is a precocious rich girl who seems designed to resemble her public persona as Ryan's daughter. In different ways, each performance is fascinating. McNichol, who has had little big-screen experience (The End), proves to be an instinctive movie star. She not only takes charge of all her scenes, but she also moves between comedy, anger and hurt without jarring shifts. Her work seems as effortless now as it did during her formative years. O'Neal, though far from terrible, is in an unfortunate quandary. While she is beautiful and at times appealing, she works too hard. When she means to be winsome, her forced smile contorts her face; when she is sad, she pouts. Worse, her increasingly high-pitched voice has little emotional range. Unlike McNichol, she is going to have to study the craft of acting to preserve the promise of her early films.

Both girls deserve a better vehicle than Little Darlings. The film has an amusing premise: the two heroines race to see who can lose her virginity first. But Director Ronald F. Maxwell, who has done superior TV work (PBS's Verna: U.S.O. Girl), settles for slogging his way through a threadbare script. Writers Kimi Peck and Dalene Young do not know how to sustain their story beyond the initial exposition, and they are not much better at writing characters. The two teenagers' love interests (Armand Assante and Matt Dillon) are such bland hunks that the stars must play the romantic scenes in a near vacuum. Most of the campers are stereotypes out of Meatballs and even lesser kiddies' fictions.

The film's tone is confused and predictable: lame slapstick gags (including the inevitable food fight), sentimental bromides about love, and deadly serious (if inexplicit) sex scenes are thrown together without transitions. Even the heroines' slowly developing friendship is sketchily written; it seems to happen offscreen. While McNichol and O'Neal always command attention, the drama they create has less to do with Little Darlings than with the intriguing vicissitudes of show business careers.

—Frank Rich