Yummy, yummy, yummy, she’s got love in her tummy


You know how a woman says “I’m not 16 anymore” as a prelude to making decisions and realigning her life? It’s a phrase that signals her decision to stick to one guy, one career, a single brand of facial cream. Goodbye to psychedelic craziness, hello to . . . smoking cigarettes in bed, in the dark, on sleepless nights. Oh well.

Sandra Bernhard and Tara Subkoff in “Lover Girl”

The question here is: Why 16? Why hit upon it as the magic number that divides a woman’s life into the Before and After? If age 16 is receding further away in the distance, it may be a good thing to dig up some answers in a work called “Lover Girl” (released in Japan as “Candy Lover Girl”).

Created by N.Y. indies duo Lisa Addario and Joe Syracuse, “Lover Girl” masks its brilliance behind artsy, low-budget filmmaking. But there’s no disguising the fact that it reaches out and grabs hold of something that sleeps in all of us: the sensations and desires of the Summer of 16. Remember what that was like? It only comes around once, then it’s gone and you forget it for a long, long time — until something like “Lover Girl” comes along. Think of it as an activator of a Proustian rush.

The entire work pivots around the charms (or lack thereof) of lead actress Tara Subkoff. To describe her as a glamorous Lolita would be, to use a line from the movie, “soooo not true.” Subkoff is skinny, has bad posture and is mightily in need of a few implants, not to mention a mega-hairdresser for her lanky strands. All this — plus her character’s twin alternating moods of being bored out of her skull and wanting so badly to fit in, anywhere — makes for gawky, unstylized youth personified. To the movie’s credit, it refrains from giving Subkoff anything close to a makeover.

Amazingly, though 24 when she appeared in this picture, Subkoff makes the girls in Shibuya look like has-been drag queens. The rumor is that she was slated for “Buffalo ’66” until Christina Ricci cut the ground out from under her feet. Since then, Subkoff has gone onto new terrain: She is now the co-designer for New York’s hottest label, Imitation of Christ, and rocking the fashion industry with innovative runway shows (playing footage of Southeast Asian children working in a clothing factory, side by side with models strutting their stuff).

You can see her fashion sensitivities firsthand in this movie, as she and costume supervisor Michelle Mati had worked closely together to orchestrate the cute, low-key ensembles that Tokyo girls are already itching to try out. One personal favorite was Subkoff wearing a string of candy like a necklace, then later using it as a hair band. Go see her in the theater and get ready to clench your fists to your cheeks and squeak “kawaiiiiii (cuuuute)!” with the rest of the girls.

Subkoff plays Jake, a clueless 16-year-old whose foremost distinction is a ferocious appetite for candy. Not chocolates you understand, but jelly beans and gummy bears and all the other stuff that explodes in the mouth and turns the tongue interesting colors. Jake’s mom goes on vacation and never comes back, so Jake piles her stuff into a straw bag, boards a Greyhound and turns up at the doorstep of her sister Darlene (Kristy Swanson) who ran away from home many years back. Darlene, however, slams the door in Jake’s face, so she latches onto neighbor Marci (Sandra Bernhard), who works at the “American Spa” downstairs.

Jake is only vaguely aware of what goes on in the “spa,” but as she gets acquainted with “the other girls” who work there and who all live together in bickering harmony with Marci, Jake decides this is where she wants to fit in — a home, lots of people, breakfast at 8 a.m. sharp. To prove that she’s part of the family, she starts working at the spa, where the clients are mostly “gross, smelly and saggy.” Marci tries to teach her the ropes of “hookering,” but lessons are wasted on Jake who can’t shake off her woeful-puppy demeanor and nervous habit of sucking Fireballs 24-hours a day.

She’s probably the unsexiest hooker in cinematic history, and there’s even a hilarious scene where a client demands his money back after five minutes of Jake’s company. Things get even messier when Darlene is hired and insists on working with her sister “as a team” for guys who go in for that sort of thing. That’s when Jake wakes up and realizes this was not at all what she wanted.

Though there’s nothing overtly sexual about “Lover Girl,” it is a highly seductive film that draws fully on the complex seductiveness of Jake. First Marci, then the spa girls and finally even Darlene fall prey to the desire to keep the unresplendent Jake nearby, a desire that probably stems from the Fascination of 16, and in this case proves a lot stronger than mere lust. The candy-colored visuals may advertise this as a “girly movie,” but its junky sweetness will appeal just as much to ex-girlies.