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What's Right for Me?: Talking with "Normal Adolescent Behavior" director Beth Schacter

We suspected Beth Schacter was a kindred spirit when she wrote about our work on her blog. But we were totally sure of it when we read about her film-in-progress 'A Virgin Mary' and saw her 2007 film 'Normal Adolescent Behavior' (NAB). This film, a teen drama like nothing you've seen, depicts the complex platonic and sexual relationships between a group of 6 high school friends. We recently spoke to Beth about how teenagers choose to have–or not have–sex.

Can you tell us about Virgin Mary, and how it's similar or different than NAB?

Virgin Mary is a romantic comedy so in that sense it's a world away from the drama of NAB. But they are both about sexual politics. Virgin Mary is about a girl, Mary, who at 12 makes a deal with her best friend Alexander that they'll lose their virginity to each other on her 18th birthday.

Then he moves way and he comes back senior year a be-dreadlocked, Burning Man worshipping freak who seems a little too eager to collect on the bet. Mary isn't ready to have sex and she spends most of the movie trying to get out of the deal instead of just being honest and saying, "I'm not ready."

Her best friend, Allison, has a lot of sex but has never fallen in love. So it's really the story of two cherries - the sex cherry and the love cherry - and how these best friends each lose them. I really love the idea of making a romantic comedy about teenagers for a teen audience; we used to have a lot more of them and they are my favorite movies.

In NAB, you've set some of the conflict between a polyamorous group of 6 friends, and the other high school kids who seem randomly promiscuous. You're making a very sophisticated distinction here. Can you talk about the differences between the two groups?

For me, the thing with the 6 friends all sleeping with each other is that it isn't that different from what most of us experience in high school. We have a clique of friends and everyone dates everyone else and eventually you're dating your best friend's ex-boyfriend and it has this very incestuous feeling to it. These six just codified it. Which is ultimately their undoing.

It was definitely a choice to put the six kids in a world where they were the most moral and the most normal. To me the six are the least corrupted of the kids in the movie - they get good grades, they don't drink, they love, they feel, they emote, they have a sense of history and are empathetic. [The eventual boyfriend of one of the six] Sean is trapped by this need to play traditional roles without understanding them and the rest of the school is trapped by this need to make sex a competition about who can be the most provocative and dangerous.

I wanted to push people to rethink their own judgments of what is "right" vs. "what is right for me." The real problem comes when we decide we need everyone else to do what we do in order to feel confident in our choices. Being an individual in the face of plurality is far more difficult than being an individual and surrounding yourself with like minded people. I think the kids did okay until Sean showed up. I know for a fact they will all go on to be healthy happy adults.

How do you think your characters differ from other onscreen representations of teenagers in mainstream films?

I'm after the same thing a bigger movie is after - people being entertained and moved. I like a lot of what is out there, and my taste is really way more mainstream than indie. Anyway, I was a huge fan of Jennifer's Body which is about as radically third-wave feminist as a movie can be. I loved the girls and their friendship which had that perfect level of obsession and real love at its core. The ideas in that movie feel familiar and yet the tone and the size of the movie couldn't be more different from what I do. And I was thoroughly entertained. It helps that the movie comes from two incredibly smart women (Diablo Cody and Karyn Kusama) and that they made it on their terms.

A lot of kids don't have any sex in high school, for a variety of reasons aside from virginity pledges, so I'm wondering how NAB might speak to them.

It may not, honestly. But then Virgin Mary started percolating because of a girl at a screening who told me she felt like nobody talked about why people don't have sex, only about why they do. I loved that. The idea that we're so focused on the why and not talking about the why-nots. At the core NAB is about self-determination which for me is the only thing that matters when you talk about sexual choices. But it definitely has a narrower spectrum of choices depicted in the story.

Was it difficult to make a film about such unconventional teenage sexual relationships? Was there pressure to make it more mainstream?

I was at a meeting when we were first out with the script, before I even finished grad school. And an executive from a studio that rhymes with MGM brought me in and told me that she would be "more comfortable" if the girls in the movie were witches. Those were her words. "More comfortable." Like the idea that these girls were having consensual sex and had made informed decisions about their sex lives was so uncomfortable that they needed to have supernatural powers so she felt better about it. I stopped trying to make a studio version of it after that.

I was struck by the line "You want me to become a virgin again?" that Wendy says to Sean when they start dating. He wanted to somehow wipe the slate clean in a way that made me think of how brides are transformed into temporary virgins on their wedding day. Why is that something people want?

I love that she calls him on his shit. He's saying "I love that you are who you are now but can we pretend you got there without having sex?" And she says absolutely not. For Sean it's so obviously coming from insecurity - he can't stand the idea that he has to compete with something so dangerous. Ultimately he can't take it–he has to destroy any evidence of her past even after they break up.

Is the idea of one boy and one girl in a committed relationship a fairy tale?

I hope not! I think the most committed relationship girls have in high school is with their best friend and when you take sex out of the equation and look at the best friend relationship you can see a lot more committed relationships that work. Really work. But you add in sex and love and lust and hormones and it gets harder. Not impossible. Just not as easy. Not that it is easy after high school it just is harder in different ways.