"Little Darlings," an unsavory little doodle about sex-obsessed teeny-boppers, unfolds at a summer retreat for girls called Camp Little Wolf. Somewhere across a lake the boys are stationed at Camp Tomahawk. Given the maddening prurience of the material, it would be more appropriate if everyone was billeted at Camp One-Track Mind.
Although there's some feeble transitional footage suggesting an occasional pledge of allegiance, campfire sing-along or sporting event, the only activity the filmmakers pursue is a dubious competition between lodgemates Tatum O'Neal and Kristy McNichol over who will lose her virginity first. According to novice screenwriters Kimi Peck and Dalene Young, one goes all the way and the other pretends she has -- but the results are equally meaningless.
"We're probably overdue for distaff variations on "Summer of '42," "American Graffiti" and "Meatballs" or an equivalent to the French genre of nubile romance exemplified by "Claudine and the Beautiful Summer" and "Don't Cry With Your Full." But what we confront in "Little Darlings" is disenchantingly tacky and exploitative. Although the focus of attention is supposed to be concentrated on girls, the characters in "Little Darlings" possess far less individuality and appeal than the female characters who seemed to be on the periphery of "Summer of 42," "American Graffiti" and "Meatballs."
O'Neal, supposedly a little lady from the upper classes, and McNichol, supposedly a tough case from a housing project (she establishes her credentials by promptly kicking a boy in the crotch, chain-smoking Marlboros and talking rough-as-they-come), are goaded into chasing sex partners by the bitchiest girl in camp, Krista Erickson as a bossy teeny-slut from Hollywood whose manipulative authority is strictly a matter of screenwriting convenience.
We're supposed to believe that O'Neal and McNichol fear that they're the only virgins their age at camp, but the idea is preposterous on the face of it. Eventually, the filmmakers acknowledge the absurdity by pretending it's a revelation.
If the protagonists aren't proud enough to resist such a disagreeable manipulator or shrewd enough to guess that the other girls may not be sexual prodigies, they are a bit too dim to justify dramatic interest. Of course, we aren't meant to conclude that they're devoid of self-respect or intelligence. But the story is formulated in a singleminded way that obliges one to reject either the girls or the premise.
One is left with the unpleasant impression that "Little Darlings" was animated by an idle longing to exploit its popular teen-age costars for cheap thrills. The depictions are discreet, but the context is obstinately smutty. There's simply nothing else on the agenda except O'Neal's efforts to seduce a camp counselor played by Armand Assante and McNichol's parallel efforts on a young Neanderthal played by Matt Dillon, who suggests not James Arness but an adolescent mutation of Sylvester Stallone's Rocky. n
Depending on how tolerant you choose to be about the material -- rendered even less appealing by the drab, clumsy direction of newcomer Ronald F. Maxwell (no more adept here than he was with the television movie "Verna, the U.S.O. Girl) -- it is possible to take some pleasure in the cast members. The girls tend to seem indistinguishable from fraternity boys: They too do nothing but talk sex, square off and start foodfights. Liberated from this pretext, several of the actresses (Errickson, Cynthia Nixon, Simone Schachter, Alexa Kenin, Jenn Thompson) might be delightful company.
Kristy McNichol's role scarcely justifies the expressive intensity she brings to it, but you can't help being impressed by her dedication and talent. She has a wonderful smile, as quick and radiant as Shirley MacLaine's. In fact, they might be a kick as daughter and mother. Although McNichol overreachers for pathos here, one feels that she could become as legitimately touching as MacLaine or Sally Field at the top of their form.
Unlike Tatum O'Neal, who's maturing into innocuousness, McNichol has a face that promises to reward study, once she and the audience can meet in classier surroundings than "Little Darlings."