Puberty Blues (1981)


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Puberty Blues (1981)

Made in association with the Australian Film Commission. Based on the novel “Puberty Blues” by Kathy Lette & Gabrielle Carey. Limelight Productions 1981

‘I don’t recall reading Puberty Blues so much as devouring it. I was fascinated. The honesty of the story made it hysterical and terrifying at the same time’.

Kylie Minogue


Bruce Beresford
Writers Gabrielle Carey (Novel)

Kathy Lette (Novel)

Margaret Kelly
Producers Joan Long

Margaret Kelly

Cinematography Donald McAlpine
Original Music Tim Finn

Les Gock
Production Designer David Copping

Production Manager Greg Ricketson
Editors William Anderson

Jeanine Chiavlo

Assistant Director Mark Egerton
Costume Designer Sue Armstrong

Cast Nell Schofield Debbie Vickers

Jad Capelja Sue Knight

Geoff Rhoe Garry

Tony Hughes Danny

Sandy Paul Tracy

Leander Brett Cheryl

Jay Hackett Bruce

Ned Lander Strach

Joanne Olsen Vicki

Julie Medana Kim

Michael Shearman Glenn

Dean Dunstone Seagull

Tina Robinson Freda

Nerida Clark Carol

Kirrily Nolan Mrs. Vickers

Alan Cassell Mr. Vickers

Rowena Wallace Mrs. Knight

Charles Tingwell The Headmaster

“Peer group pressure during adolescence often reshapes an individual’s basic values. At this time, cliques are stronger than at any other time in life. Popularity – the recognition and positive judgement from one’s own age group – is sought as a proof of self-worth. Puberty Blues, which is set in contemporary Australia, chronicles this quest through the adventures of two teenagers”.

Spirituality and Practice Film Review by Frederic and Mary Ann Brussat

Dates and other Movie Information

Release Dates Australia 10th December 1981

West Germany 27th August 1982

USA 15th July 1983 (limited) (imdb)

DVD Release 11th March 2003

Company Credits Production Co Limelight Productions

Distributor Roadshow Home Video

Universal Classics (imdb)
Filming Locations Cronulla, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia

Sydney, New South Wales, Australia

New South Wales, Australia (imdb)
Runtime 87 min
Rating M 15+ Recommended for mature audiences 15 years

and over. Medium level sex scene, medium level coarse language, adult themes. (The Office of Film & Literature Classification).

Genre Comedy/Drama – As with many films, Puberty Blues is a hybrid of many genres. Put simply, I would call it a ‘Coming of Age’ film.

Technical Specifications Colour info: Colour (Eastmancolour)

Negative format: 35 mm

Process: Panavision (anamorphic)

Printed format: 35 mm

Aspect ratio: 2.35 : 1

Budget and Box Office

Unfortunately, I couldn’t find any budget figures relating to the production costs of Puberty Blues.

According to the Australian Film Commission Puberty Blues is ranked # 44 amongst the top Australian films at the Australian Box Office – 1966 to 31 December 2005. Earnings to date $3 918,000.

In relation to the American Box Office, (Australian films earning more than US$100,000 gross at the USA Box Office – 1981 – March 2005), Puberty Blues is ranked # 77. Earnings to date $237,000. (AFC)

Film Reviews in 1981

‘The Americans have made volumes of ‘growing up’ movies ranging from low class Endless Loves to high grade Breaking Aways. They’ve made muscle beach parties, 50s nostalgia blasts and films about teenage sexuality…..Very few of them are in the same class as Puberty Blues. It is a wonderfully judges (sic) film about the comedy and tragedy of growing up’.
John Lapsley, Sun Herald (Sydney)

‘It’s a youthful and sensitive popular comedy, punctuated by brief moments of starkly matter-of-fact intelligence about the mix of small humiliations, major disasters, and cruelties taken and given in the daily lives of most young girls…..Nell Schofield in particular creates an irresistible and amiably low-key heroine, who carries the film through to a wickedly stirring surfing finale – by way of the best scenes I have ever seen in any film about the basic mechanics of pregnancy scares’.

Meaghen Morris, Financial Review

‘In Puberty Blues script, photography, acting and direction are blended with an intelligent craftsmanship that is still too rare in Australian films’.

Neil Jillett, The Age (Melbourne)
‘The most appealing thing about Puberty Blues is its frankness in dealing with what is actually happening to the younger generation today. The movie doesn’t pull any punches as it exposes the funny and tragic sides of growing up…

At times it is almost like watching yourself

Wayne Webster, Daily Telegraph (Sydney)

‘A gritty entertaining piece of social realism, helped no end by the engaging and amiable work of Nell Schofield and Jad Capelja in the lead roles…..After years of being starved of identifiable, recognizable images of themselves, here is a feast for adolescents.

Terry Jennings, Adelaide Advertiser

‘All up, Puberty Blues turns out to be a brave and important film’.

John Hindle, National Times
The above reviews can be found on the 2003 re-release DVD of Puberty Blues.

It was difficult to find many reviews dating back to 1981. I found however, that there was plenty of reviews when the film was re-released onto DVD. Below are some of the reviews I found.

  • Debbie and Sue are teenagers who live…..

  • Based on the novel of the same name, written…

  • Based on the Kathy Lette novel, this refreshingly honest…

  • Two average looking girls, Debbie (Nell Schofield) …

  • Puberty Blues is a very low-budget Australian film …

  • A funny yet frank look at the coming-of-age …

  • Nothing more than the overrated Getting of Wisdom …

  • A gradual evolution of Bruce Beresford’s series …

  • Peer group pressure during adolescence often …

  • Puberty Blues opens with best friends Debbie …

Interviews with Director, Actors and Writers

I didn’t have any luck sourcing interviews from 1981. However, with the re-release in 2003 I finally found some interesting interviews. Bruce Beresford and Nell Schofield give an account of the movie 21 years after it’s release in the new DVD edition. Whilst it is interesting to discover how quickly the film was shot (six weeks), and fascinating to hear Mr. Beresford claim that he hasn’t seen the film since it’s 1981 release, the interviews and articles I found far more intriguing are those that focus on the writers of this extraordinary book.

Kathy Lette and Gabrielle Carey are the authors of the book Puberty Blues. The book was released in 1979 when the girls were only 18 years old, and appeared on the big screen two years later. The book is autobiographical and details the secret lives led by the two teenage girls growing up near Cronulla beach in the

The ‘Salami Sisters’

Kathy Lette & Gabrielle Carey, 1979

1970’s. What fascinates me the most is that these two girls describe in raw detail the dynamics and peer hierarchy of life for the teen in the 70’s.

I’m sure most teen’s think that they are far more risqué than their parents ever were and that with each new decade comes far more decadence. I was shocked to realize that these girls were far more on the edge than I was a decade later growing up in the 80’s. In one interview Kathy Lette admits to journalist George Negus that the book was written about a time when the girls were only 13 years old.

The one thing I didn’t like about the film was that in the book, the girls are 13…That gave it its whole poignancy, that the girls are so young when they’re going through that, but they had to escalate the girls’ ages to 16 for the film, for censorship reasons, so that was a real shame’.
That little piece of information blew me away to realize that these girls were not only having sex (not for the pleasure of it, but to simply belong), getting drunk, smoking a joint and being exposed to heroin at the tender age of 13. That made me re-assess my teenage years and come to the realization that we were decidedly straight by comparison. In fact, had we been in the same peer group we would definitely have been labeled ‘prudes’. Once you get your head around this fact you are then confronted by the notion that these girls came from middle class backgrounds with Gabrielle Carey’s father being a professor. You are then forced to ask yourself why Lette and Carey were involved in such a low-class lifestyle. They were loved, educated and materialistically went without nothing. This then leads one to conclude that this was simply the environment amongst Australian youths in the 1970’s.
Whilst Kathy Lette laughs about the fact that she may now have a melanoma on her stomache called ‘Bruce’; (her boyfriend at the time made her cut out his name in paper, put in on her stomache and then sunbake until she had his name tattooed for all the world to see that she was his), I’m sure there is a part of both Lette and Carey that cries for the girls they once were.

It is also interesting to note that Kathy and Gabrielle had a huge falling out after the release of the film. Their lives took them in completely opposite directions and they haven’t spoken or seen each other for about 20 years. With the re-release in 2003, both women have expressed a desire to rekindle their friendship.

Some further reading about the notorious Salami Sisters, as Lette and Carey were known, can be found at the following:





The Producer of Puberty Blues, Joan Long, was another person that I found interesting to read about. Somewhat of a pioneer, Joan began her career as a director and screenwriter for the Commonwealth Film Unit in 1948. Joan was also known for her fearlessness in tackling difficult social issues. I thought it was important to mention her as we have two strong female authors, two strong female leads and one very strong female producer to put together one of the first coming of age, surf movies told from the female perspective.

Joan Long’s biography can be found at the following:


On-line presence

Whilst I found enough information about both the book and the film I would have liked to have found articles about how the teen viewing audience related to the film at the time of it’s release and a comparison piece on how the youth of today views the film. Much of what I read about how the movie is viewed today often times made note of the language (‘Fish faced moll’, ‘What a turd’), the clothing and sometimes scoffed at the idea that girls would be so stupid as to be the boy’s slaves.

It was difficult to find many interviews with either cast, crew or writers from the time of the films initial release.
With the films re-release there was a renewed interest in the film both from a nostalgic and review perspective. It was interesting to note the comparison to the 2003 American teenage drama, ‘Thirteen’. This film shocked audiences with its raw and graphic description of life for its two female leads. It’s no bars-hold approach was reminiscent of what Bruce Beresford tried to portray 22 years earlier. From the audience reaction to this movie, I can imagine the same reaction holding true for many parents in 1981.

Critical Review

There were three main sections of Cronulla Beach. South Cronulla, North Cronulla and Greenhills. Everyone was trying to make it to Greenhills. That’s where the top surfie gangs hung out - prettiest girls from school, and the best surfers on the beach…Bad surf riders on their ‘L’ plates, the Italian family groups and the uncool kids from Bankstown swarmed to South Cronulla….Dickheadland…That’s where it all began…We were dickheads

Opening voice over – Debbie Vickers (Nell Schofield)
Based on the autobiographical novel by Kathy Lette and Gabrielle Carey, Puberty Blues tells the story of two Aussie teenage girls trying desperately to find their own voice. It is a classic Australian coming-of-age movie that stays true to the Australian culture of the time.

Set in the 70’s, the audience is invited in to the secret world of cliques and gangs who make up the population around Cronulla at this time. The two main leads are 16-year-old girls who want nothing more than to be a part of the ‘cool’ gang. In order to achieve this the girls must compromise their own values and suck-up to the gang members in order to be accepted. The girls achieve their desires by helping two of the gang members cheat on an exam. What finally gets them into the group is their decision not to dob in any gang members and to take the blame for their deeds.

Once in the gang, the boys take their pick of the girls and Debbie (Nell Schofield) is chosen by the charming Bruce.
Do you wanna go out?’ (Bruce)

Yeah’ (Debbie)

At which point Bruce removes his bubble gum and leans in for a pash.

Now that the girls are firmly entrenched in ‘gang’ life it is quickly revealed to the audience that life is ruled by the boys wants…And what the boys want, is to surf, drink and ‘screw’. The girls are so happy to belong that they blindly go along with whatever situation is put in front of them. Debbie’s first encounter with sex takes place in the back of Bruce’s panel van at the drive-ins. Whilst several of the other gang members are in the front of the car, Debbie is ‘taken’ in the back in an almost caveman style. There is no gentleness, foreplay or even encouraging words. It’s just get it off, whip it out, jab it in…Done…

As the story unfolds we see Debbie and Sue participating in all gang activities ranging from screwing on demand, to getting pissed and smoking a joint, all without question. We also see the subservient manner in which they interact with their boyfriends. Put simply, the girls role is to watch their boy’s surf, marvel at their greatness, fetch food and drink on demand, have sex when told and above all to agree with whatever the boys say…no opinions allowed.
Debbie and Sue play along with this game for a while until Debbie primarily becomes a little bored and begins to question things. As she grows stronger in her own beliefs her loyal friend Sue backs her up in her quest to find her own identity.
By the movies end the girls have found their own voice and show their strength by participating in the one realm that has been deemed ‘men only’…surfing.

The closing scene shows Debbie not only take on the waves but also dominate them as she surfs her way to personal freedom.

I must admit I have a love/hate relationship with this film. At the time of its release I was a 12 year old living in country Western Australia. I was impressed with the language (teenagers swearing is always cool) and I was equally impressed with the way in which Debbie and Sue did what they liked. The surfing scene at the end was totally cool and somewhat empowering for a young girl.

Watching the same film twenty something years later I looked at those girls with frustration and sorrow. I hate that they’re so weak and easily led. I’m saddened by their first sexual encounter. I’m horrified by the ‘gang bang’ scene with Frida and I’m shocked to realize that I could identify with the peer group and relate it to my own teen experiences.
My friends and I were definitely not part of the ‘cool’ group. We were all into our sport. We didn’t take part in ‘bog laps’ (driving around town, very slowly, in a hotted up car, with the music blaring). We didn’t have perms and we didn’t wear flannel…We didn’t belong and we didn’t want to. As a consequence, we were constantly harassed by the cool kids. I think I was called everything from a moll, to a dog and the ultimate…slut. So, I watched this movie with hatred for the gang and empathy and frustration for Debbie and Sue. I was like one of those people that yells out at a horror movie just as the monster approaches…except I was yelling out “don’t do it”…..
What I love about the film is its authentic portrayal of the characters and time in which it was set. There is no attempt to pretty –up any of the characters or to dumb-down any of the scenes. It almost seems naive in its approach and yet this simplicity and rawness is what I believe makes it uniquely Australian. Whilst the film has been described as a comedy/drama and granted much of the dialogue is indeed amusing and we experience many dramatic moments; first sexual encounter, first time drunk and stoned, the death of a mate from a drug over-dose, and the realization that you don’t have to conform to others’ points of view, I ultimately feel that this film is best described as a coming-of-age story.

At the time of its release in 1981, Puberty Blues was well received by both the critics and the ‘youth’ audience that flocked to see the film. The critics loved it for it’s raw, authentic portrayal of ‘Australian Youth’. The teens loved it because it told their story and for the first time it told their story from a female perspective. The parents of these youths, did not, however, embrace this film with open arms. It was too much of a shock for many of them to accept that the behaviour portrayed in the film could very well be what their own teens were experiencing. I’m sure many of the mothers would have been saddened to realize that their girls were being treated like doormats.

Twenty-two years later and those same teens that adored the film at the time now look back on it in a nostalgic way. It was their story about their lives. However, many of those same youths are parents now and the sudden realization that their own children could be experiencing similar situations I feel fills them with dread. Gabrielle Carey discusses this conflict in her article “I’m not as bad as you were, Mum”.
The overwhelming response to this film now a days is one of pride in its uniquely Australian way of telling a story about the difficult and sometimes funny side of growing up Aussie…
Puberty Blues is a profoundly moral story’

Germaine Greer


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