Debbie (Nell Schofield) was a sixteen-year-old from a well-to-do Sydney area, though her heart lay not with her exasperated but financially comfortable parents, but with the other teenagers down on Greenhill Beach. Now rejecting the church group she belonged to and the possibility of gaining high marks in school, Debbie was set on admittance to the circle of the coolest kids around, along with her best friend Sue (Jad Capelja), but it was not going to be easy for them. The cool kids, especially the girls, thought of them as "crawlers", and Debbie found herself fighting one of them on the school bus one morning. However, all it took for acceptance was a little rule-breaking...
The novel Puberty Blues was written by Kathy Lette and Gabrielle Carey and a minor sensation in Australia for its frankness and the fact it was a work produced by two girls who were teenagers at the time they wrote it. In the semi-autobiographical book, Debbie and Sue were actually thirteen-year-olds, but the filmmakers, including script adapter Margaret Kelly, wisely made them older to avoid too much controversy. The film was still a sizeable hit in its native country and retains a following to this day, mainly from those who saw it at an impressionable age.
Impressionable ages is what it's all about, as director Bruce Beresford remains sympathetic to Debbie and Sue, but also regards the group they end up mixing with as some kind of primitive tribe, depicting its behaviour and customs as if he were making a nature documentary. It's to the cast's credit that they are able to bring both the humour and the pain of their situation out of what could have been yet another crass teen movie in the American mould, especially Schofield and Capelja who even though we can see they are fools to themselves for wanting so much to be "cool", are nonetheless understandable throughout.
For much of the story the theme is of how much the girls will sacrifice for status, and just how empty that status really is in the great scheme of things. Debbie and Sue manage to gain entry into the surfers' circle by being caught cheating in exams, which lends them kudos and therefore the permission to start hanging out with the boys who would spend all day at the beach if they could, and the girls who follow them. This relationship is typically summed up by a scene where the girls, sunning themselves but never dreaming of taking to the waves, are ordered to fetch food for the boys, not that they would eat anything for fear of appearing unladylike.
As you can imagine, the Australian male is less-than-flatteringly portrayed as a generally moronic Neanderthal whose chief interest in women is for sex or to get a beer for them. The sequence where Debbie's parents are appalled by her coarse but trying to be polite new boyfriend Bruce (Jay Hackett) is highly amusing, one of many well-observed sequences, as is the scene where Debbie almost loses her virginity but is sabotaged by Bruce's ineptitude - naturally, she blames herself. As the film draws on, the laughs grow thinner on the ground due to a more serious tone, with Debbie's dissatisfaction with her lot leading to a pregnancy scare and a tragic wakeup call. Puberty Blues ends on a note of female empowerment when Debbie and Sue finally rebel against the social suffocaction they wanted to be part of, nothing shocking but still an encouraging strike against narrow-mindedness. Music by Tim Finn of Split Enz and Crowded House fame (who wrote the theme song, among others) and Les Gock.