Films of the LES is a monthly blog series where we examine feature films that either take place or were filmed in the Lower East Side.
The 1980’s saw a smorgasbord of films that examined the teen experience during that decade of decadence. Many have stood the test of time and are still as beloved and popular today as they were 30 years ago. Yet for every Sixteen Candles or The Breakfast Club – teen films that seem to have a ubiquitous presence on Cable television – there is a wonderful hidden gem from the genre such as Old Enough that in many ways is still waiting to be discovered and appreciated.
Released in the summer of 1984, Old Enough tells the simple coming-of-age story of the friendship that develops between wealthy pre-teen Lonnie (Sarah Boyd) and working class teen Karen (Rainbow Harvest) in New York City. Lonnie lives in a plush brownstone in uptown Manhattan with her parents and younger sister (played by a young Alyssa Milano in her film debut), while Karen lives in a tenement on the Lower East Side with her working-class parents and older brother. The film is as much about class as it is about friendship, and the filmmakers use New York City, and more specifically the Lower East Side, as a backdrop to tell this story.
Old Enough is unusual compared to the other teen films of the 1980’s in that it is one of the few that is about urban teens. Whereas other teen films like Adventures in Babysitting and Big depict cities (Chicago and New York) as a “big, bad, scary place,” Old Enough never goes that route. The city – and more specifically the Lower East Side – is depicted with a realism and grittiness that makes it simply come across as home to these characters.
This might be because the writer and director of Old Enough, Marisa Silver, grew up in New York City on the Upper East Side and Old Enough was very much autobiographical. Believe it or not, Ms. Silver is not the first in her family to make a feature film primarily set in the Lower East Side. Her mother is Joan Micklin Silver, who wrote and directed two Lower East Side cinematic staples: Hester Street and Crossing Delancey (two films that we will be visiting in future FILMS OF THE LES blog entries).
With Old Enough celebrating its 30th anniversary, we were fortunate enough to interview Ms. Silver, now a successful best-selling award winning (this is a lot of adjectives) author living in California, about the making of the film, its origins, and what exactly the deal is with her family and making movies in the Lower East Side!?
Q: How did you come up with the idea for Old Enough?
MS: Old Enough was loosely based on something that happened to me in my childhood. My family had moved from a rather suburban life in Cleveland, Ohio to New York City. We landed in Yorkville, in the east 80s, where there was a large German immigrant population, and I became friends with a girl from the neighborhood. During the year that I knew her, I was introduced into her world, which was so different from one I was used to, and vice versa. In those days (the late ’60s), kids had, I think, much more freedom to run around, and the girl and I spent an enormous amount of time getting into various forms of trouble. It was a most excellent year.
Q: Did you always envision much of Old Enough taking place in the LES? If so, why?
MS: Since the actual story took place on the UES, I was not specifically looking to film on the LES. What I was looking for was the texture of the neighborhood I’d grown up in, as I remembered it. The street where I lived had a mixture of older, tenement-style apartment buildings as well as single-family brownstones. There was a church on one side, which was the focus of activity for much of the neighborhood. There was a strong sense of a very specific ethnic population, both in terms of the kinds of shops that were around and the way in which people used the street — the way the older people sat out on their stoops, the way the kids played stickball in and out of traffic, the way that people, to some extent, knew one another’s business. I can’t remember why the actual street in Yorkville didn’t work out for us, but the street we used on the LES had exactly the texture I was looking for.
Q. Filming in the LES in the early 1980’s was probably very different than filming in the LES today. What was that experience like? Are there any stories that stand out?
MS: It was a long time ago! I do remember one canny neighbor who, realizing that we were making a film, started playing his horn every time I yelled “action” and stopping every time I yelled “cut”. I think he was hoping for a bigger pay-off than we could afford. It was a very low budget film! Mostly, people friendly and curious for a little bit, then they went about their business. I think anyone who has ever watched a film being made realizes that watching paint dry would be more interesting. It’s a pretty slow, tedious endeavor and not all that glamorous.
Q. I noticed that when the film was released in Europe it was entitled “Girls Wanna Have Fun”. I take it they were trying to capitalize on the Cyndi Lauper song released a year earlier (albeit a slightly different title). Was there any discussion of changing the title to that in the United States to give a wide distribution?
MS: I don’t remember that! I guess I didn’t have any input in that decision; otherwise it certainly wouldn’t have been the title I’d have chosen.
Q. Was the film only released in NYC? In the 30 years since it has been released what has been the general response to the film?
MS: I think it was released a bit more widely than just NYC, but I don’t remember its release pattern. Like most films, it got some nice notices, some not so nice ones. It was invited to be shown at the Cannes Film Festival, and it won first prize in the US Film Festival, which was later renamed The Sundance Film Festival. So it had a pretty nice life. For me and my sister, Dina, who produced the film, this was our first real adult accomplishment. So it was a big personal success for us.
Q. So between your film, Old Enough, and your mother directing Hester Street and later Crossing Delancey, the Silver family seems to have the corner on making feature films that take place in the LES. Does your family have history in the LES? If not, what do you think the appeal of the LES been for you?
MS: Again, our choice of the LES was more happenstance. Hester Street and Crossing Delancey could only have been made on those streets. My family lived on the UES. But our forebears started on the LES when they immigrated to America. As a kid, I used to go down to the LES a lot — to wander around Hester and Ludlow, check out the clothing vendors, hang out on St. Mark’s Place doing, you know, what you did on St. Marks Place in the seventies.
– Post by Jon Pace