Bill Forsyth is not what you would call a lifelong film lover. Born in Glasgow in the immediate aftermath of World War 2, his early experiences of cinema were formed by Saturday film clubs filled with noisy children and a thick layer of sweat and sugar that left you feeling distinctly grubby. Despite these negative formative experiences, Forsyth drifted into what then passed for a Scottish film industry and soon moved from making documentaries to making children’s films on the assumption that they would be easier to make and easier to sell. Forsyth’s first film was a charming caper named That Sinking Feeling, which the BFI are re-releasing this month. Filled with Scottish child actors, That Sinking Feeling did something that remains tragically rare in British film; it explored what life was like outside of London and it did so in a voice that was entirely and authentically of that place and time. This voice would be heard around the world upon the release of Forsyth’s next feature film, the unimpeachably wonderful Gregory’s Girl.
The film opens with a scene that could have appeared in a dozen American sex comedies: A bunch of horny teenaged boys are hiding in the bushes watching a nursing student get changed out of her uniform. The boys predictably treat this as something of a religious experience and wander away changed men only for a couple of much younger boys to walk past, crack a joke about the fact that they’ve left it a bit late to see their first pair of breasts and calmly comment that the nurse is now taking off her underwear. It’s the addition of the two much younger boys that really sells the scene: These lads can’t even get lurking in the bushes right!
Principle voyeur is Gregory (John Gordon Sinclair) an awkward sixteen year-old whose innocence and incompetence only magnify his considerable wit and charm. Gregory’s first major scene involves him being dressed down by a sport’s teacher for his incompetence at football but while Gregory does a fantastic job of defusing and ridiculing the teacher’s anger, it’s clear that he’s actually quite upset at the prospect of losing his place on the team. Worried about the people who might replace him, Gregory decides to watch the try-outs and sees a young woman named Dorothy (Dee Hepburn) show up all the boys and secure a place on the team. When someone points out that women shouldn’t be playing football, Gregory explains that this is modern! The future!
One of the most striking things about Gregory’s Girl is the thoroughly progressive manner in which Forsyth handles Gregory’s growing obsession with Dorothy. These days, even relatively benign high school movies such as Easy A and Mean Girls go out of their way to sexualise their young female characters in a way that not only turns the audience into voyeurs but also speaks to Hollywood’s lack of confidence in an audience’s ability to empathise with female characters. A remade Gregory’s Girl would linger on Dorothy’s shorts and marvel at her thighs but Forsyth uses Dorothy’s athletic prowess as little more than the distinguishing characteristic that brings her to Gregory’s attention. Before Dorothy, Gregory viewed women as fantasy objects but losing his place on the football team to a girl means that he is suddenly able to relate to that girl as a real person and so falls hopelessly in love with her.
Forsythe uses Gregory’s charming obliviousness as an excuse to fill the world of his film with wonderfully textured and memorable characters such as the diminutive sports teacher who dreams of glory, the terrifying head teacher who escapes to play jauntily uplifting music on the school piano, the precocious younger sister (Allison Forster) who has her own relationship sorted and tries to sort out Gregory, and the best friend who is so passionate about food and cooking that he sits on the sofa critiquing TV chefs in the way that most teenaged boys might shout at the football. There is so much warmth, wisdom, humour and humanity in the characters of Gregory’s Girl that experiencing them means never being able to tolerate weak and lazy writing again. This is one of those films that raises the bar.
The final act in which Gregory finally decides to ask out Dorothy only to find himself going on a series of mini-dates with Dorothy’s friends is as perfect and charming a representation of a young man encountering female society as it is possible to imagine, and the best thing about it is that nobody gets smeared in menstrual blood, nobody downs a cup of semen and nobody has sex with a cake.
Bill Forsyth is not what you would call a lifelong cinephile as despite winning a goodly number of awards for both this film and his follow-up Local Hero, Forsyth wound up drifting away from cinema on the grounds that it’s a medium that indulges in little more than shallow emotional manipulation of its audience. Funnily enough, Gregory’s Girl proves him both completely right and utterly wrong as while it really is nothing more than a beautifully written and performed Scottish romantic comedy, the vision of teenaged life it contains endures long after the laughs and smiles have faded. This film is a true classic of British cinema.