I Used to be Normal: A Boyband Fangirl Story

 

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A subject that sounded unrewarding turns out to be anything but.

 
I Used to be Normal: A Boyband Fangirl Story

 

The lengthy title of Jessica Leski's documentary strikes me as somewhat clumsy which is surprising given that so much about her film is carefully considered. Indeed, it is the approach that she has adopted to the subject of adolescent girls obsessed by boy bands which goes a long way to explaining why her film is so worthwhile. The very notion of these fangirls readily yields thoughts of screaming youngsters at pop concerts drowning out the music with their yells. Instinctively, therefore, one is ready to dismiss this subject as one of limited interest, but Leski's film only serves to show how misguided that would be.

 

Leski is well aware of how much there is to explore here and she does it with a very sure touch. For one thing she chooses four such fans to put screen centre, each able to provide a different insight. One of them, the Australian Susan Bower, was 64 years of age when filmed and can look back on her devotion to the first of the boy bands to wow the girls, The Beatles. At the opposite extreme is Elif Cam living in New York's Long Island but of Turkish descent: she was photographed for the film between the ages of sixteen and eighteen and is therefore able to speak of her admiration for One Direction in terms of what she was feeling at that very time. Meanwhile, Sadia in San Francisco is a writer who, now in her twenties, has long been a devotee of Backstreet Boys with a special fixation on Nick Carter. The fourth participant and the most analytical is another Australian, Dara Donnelly, who at the age of thirty-three looks back on her obsession with Gary Barlow and Take That which started when she was twelve.

 

The interview footage is thoughtful without being over-earnest. While there is recognition of the absurdity of certain aspects of this form of worship, Leski is never condescending to her interviewees and allows their comments to reveal the extent to which being a fangirl can be a helpful phase. It is seen as a release of feelings and of energy, as a form of escapism that sustains them and as a safe way of experiencing love (the adoration felt may be born of emerging sexual awareness but the fantasy involved does not centre on sex as such).

 

Over the course of the film we warm to the four leading participants and learn something of the lives of each of them. There is a fond recall of old memorabilia that has been kept, but even those who look back on fandom as part of the process of growing up acknowledge the fact that in later years they continue to find comfort in the music of their idols. Looking back now, Sadia is starting to question seriously the extent of her absorption, Elif who is at odds with her parents over wanting to be a singer herself is wondering where she will be at 21 and Susan, still happy to recall The Beatles, looks on her passion for John Lennon as belonging to a time before responsibility entered her life - indeed she describes it as now being part of the inner child that she does not wish to lose. And as for Dara - she who can recall how in her day at school it had been social suicide to be known to love a boy band - reveals how she found it harder to come out about that than it was later over being a lesbian. But she is now out and proud in that respect and musically too. Furthermore, she has found a soul-mate, someone who in her early days was a besotted fan of Robbie Williams.

 

MANSEL STIMPSON

 

Featuring  Dara Donnelly, Elif Cam, Susan Bower, Sadia, Rukshana, Syed, Nemara Hennigan, Kate Ellis, Huw Araniego-Ellis, Salim Cam, Belinay Cam, Eslem Cam.

 

Dir Jessica Leski, Pro Jessica Leski and Rita Walsh, Ph Jason Joseffer, Simon Koloadin, Eric La Plante and Cesar Salmeson-Hoving, Ed Johanna Scott, Music Jed Palmer.

 

Screen Australia/Over Here Productions/Film Victoria-Sparky Pictures.
93 mins. Australia/USA. 2018. Rel: 3 May 2021. Available on BFI Player. Cert. PG.