June 20, 2021
by Carla Hay
Directed by Michael Caton-Jones
Culture Representation: Taking place in 1996 in Scotland (primarily in Edinburgh), the comedy/drama “Our Ladies” features an all-white cast of characters representing the working-class, middle-class and wealthy.
Culture Clash: Five rebellious teenage girls, who’ve gone to Edinburgh with their Catholic school choir for a singing competition, decide to have a wild day and night out in search of partying and sex.
Culture Audience: “Our Ladies” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in female-centric coming-of-age films with good acting, despite some elements of the movie that are annoying or not very genuine.
“Our Ladies” comes across as a movie version of what men think naughty Catholic school girls should be like. The talented performances by the movie’s principal cast members elevate a story that ignores key elements of what it’s like to be a female teenager who’s coming of age. “Our Ladies” is the type of dramedy that men will probably enjoy more than women, because women are more likely to notice what’s missing in this movie about five rebellious teenage girlfriends who are part of a Catholic school choir. “Our Ladies” is entertaining overall, but it doesn’t ring true when it blatantly omits certain details and nuances of female friendships.
Written and directed by Michael Caton-Jones (who adapted the screenplay from Alan Warner’s 1998 novel “The Sopranos”), the “Our Ladies” movie takes place over less than a week in 1996. In this movie, the five pals are in their last year at the all-girls Our Lady of Perpetual Succour High School, which is in an unnamed suburban city in Scotland, but the school is in West Highland Council. The five teens are restless and only see their choir trip to Edinburgh as a way to sneak off and indulge in non-stop partying on the day and night before a major choir competition.
The movie has the added element of a main character speaking as a hindsight voiceover narrator, years after this story takes place. That narrator is Orla (played Tallulah Greive), one of the five female friends who are the center of the story. Viewers know that Orla is looking back on this particular time in her life, because she wistfully says in the movie’s opening narration that 1996 was “a different time then, before social media and mobile phones changed everything forever.”
The movie then shows Orla with her four other pals in 1996. All five of them are dressed in identical, long white dresses that look like nightgowns, as they stand together, looking out at a dreamy Scottish landscape. It’s an obvious fantasy image to make them look “pure” that’s meant to contrast with the not-so-pure shenanigans they get up to later in the movie.
Unfortunately, this movie’s filmmakers seem to have a very selective memory of what teenage life was like in the 1990s. The Internet existed in 1996, but it wasn’t as widely used as it is today. However, computers were common in many households. Email and instant messaging chat rooms were definitely big parts of modern culture in 1996 and were popular with teenagers. But in the “Our Ladies” movie, that type of communication technology isn’t even discussed. It’s as if this movie takes place in 1986, not 1996.
Orla’s “voice from the future” narration is unnecessary and a bit pretentious because, except for the lack of cell phones and lack of Internet use, there’s absolutely nothing in this movie that looks like it could only be experienced by teenagers in the 1990s. The concerns that this movie’s teen characters have are universal concerns that seem to be timeless among many teens: having fun with friends, partying and having sex. We’ve already seen these types of teen movies from many different eras and cultures.
Who are the five pals who are the focus of this movie?
- Orla, the voiceover narrator, is recovering from leukemia. Orla is self-conscious about her close-cropped hair from cancer treatments, so she wears a red do-rag on her head for most of the movie. She also feels insecure about having to wear a mouth retainer (which she takes off when she wants to feel sexy) and she’s embarrassed about being the only virgin in her circle of friends.
- Finnoula (played by Abigail Lawrie) is the tallest and bossiest member of the group. When Finnoula doesn’t like someone, she can be a bully. She’s also got an independent streak where she doesn’t want to have a predictable life that many of her peers have of getting married and becoming parents soon after high school.
- Manda (played by Sally Messham) is a foul-mouthed and blunt jokester who is Finnoula’s closest friend because they’ve known each other the longest. Manda’s personality can best be described as a teenage Scottish version of comedian Amy Schumer: Some people adore her, while others think she’s very annoying.
- Chell (played by Rona Morison) is the most sexually experienced of the group. She’s the one who’s most likely to give sex advice to her friends.
- Kyla (played by Marli Siu) is the most talented singer on the school choir. She has dreams of being a rock star and is getting experience as the lead vocalist for a local teenage band.
All five of these friends come from working-class backgrounds, which is something that Finnoula seems to resent the most. She wants to make a life for herself that’s usually accessed by more privileged people with connections and resources that people from elite social classes often take for granted. Finnoula openly expresses envy of people she thinks have more advantages that were handed to them, just because they were born into certain families.
It’s a big contrast to Manda, who’s perfectly content with staying working-class. Her biggest goal in life is to find a man with a job, get married young, and start having children as soon as possible. That doesn’t mean she’ll lose her hellraiser ways, because she mentions at one point in the movie that being married doesn’t mean that she has to be monogamous.
Orla is the nicest and most bashful out of the five friends, but she can succumb to peer pressure so that she’ll fit in when the other friends want to be rude and selfish. Because of her experience with cancer, Orla wants to experience life as much as she can because she doesn’t know how much longer she might have to live. Her immediate goal is to lose her virginity. There’s an early scene in the movie where Orla looks into a mirror and says mournfully that she doesn’t want to be a virgin for the rest of her life.
Chell is very mischievous and fun-loving, but she has a tragedy from her past that probably explains why she’s promiscuous. As Orla says in a voiceover, after Chell’s father drowned at sea, Chell “went daft for a while.” The movie then cuts to a scene of Chell grabbing a guy on a school bus and kissing him, which implies that she’s using casual sex as a way to cope with her grief.
Kyla has a very specific vision for the type of entertainer she wants to be. She is growing increasingly impatient with the other members of her band because she thinks they might be too amateurish for her. By the end of this movie, Kyla will have made a decision on whether to stick with her band or quit.
Although “Our Ladies” is about how close these five female friends are, what doesn’t ring true is how they never talk about their family members during the entire movie. Not once is it mentioned if these teens have siblings or parents, except for the mention about Chell’s father dying. In an early part of the movie, narrator Orla says about herself and her gal pals: “We had one thing on our minds: boys.”
It’s the part of the movie that’s very fake, because of course there’s more to teenage girls than being boy-crazy. Making teenage girls into aspiring nymphomaniacs just seems like a very narrow-minded stereotype that a male writer/director would put a lot of emphasis on in a movie, compared to a female writer/director, who would be more likely to have realistic and well-rounded aspects of these female teenage friendships.
In “Our Ladies,” the main characters are female, but they depend on male approval to boost their self-esteem, because almost everything they do to “rebel” is to get the sexual attention of men. Almost. There’s a bi-curious subplot that’s filmed exactly how a man would film scenes of two horny Catholic school girls who are sexually attracted to each other.
There’s a concerted effort in the movie to not have authority figures as a prominent part of the story, which is understandable, considering the hijinks these teens get up to during the course of the movie. But it does a disservice to the five main characters to make it look like they live in an unrealistic bubble where they don’t even care to talk about their families. Even teenage girls with the worst families talk about their families with their closest friends.
And although these teenagers are rebellious and have no plans to go to a university, it also seems very unrealistic that Kyla is the only one who is shown to have talent or a passion for something (singing) that she wants to turn into a career. Don’t any of these four other friends have any hobbies besides getting drunk, looking for sex partners, and being on the school choir? Apparently not.
Kyla is also the only one in the clique who has a real paying job. She currently works at a dead-end cashier job at a place called Fort William’s Music Store, so that she can get employee discounts on CDs and other items in the store. And how she got that job is one of the more bizarre aspects of this story, which has a semi-obsession with teenage pregnancy.
As Orla explains in a voiceover and as it’s shown in a flashback, Kyla knew another teenage girl who worked as a cashier at the store, and Kyla wanted that job. And so, instead of applying to work there like a sensible person would, Kyla concocted a very convoluted and manipulative plan to get that job. Kyla befriended the girl, who was a naïve virgin, and started telling her about the joys of sex, but never talking about birth control.
Kyla did this with the assumption that this girl would start having unprotected sex, have an unplanned pregnancy, and would have to quit her job at Fort William’s Music Store due to the pregnancy. And sure enough, that’s what happened, and Kyla got the job to replace her. There’s a scene of the girl sobbing to Kyla about her unplanned pregnancy, and Kyla asking, with a smirk on her face, what’s going to happen to this girl’s job when she’s on maternity leave. No one said that all five of these friends are likable.
There are so many things wrong with this part of the movie, not the least of which is that it’s the closest thing to a “backstory” that the movie is willing to give Kyla. Really? The only thing you’re going to show about Kyla’s past is some dirty backstabbing that she did for a menial job?
And her scheme was not very smart, because there were different variables that could have led to different outcomes. What if the girl who got pregnant decided to have an abortion and didn’t need to quit her job? What if she never got pregnant? And what kind of person thinks that waiting for someone to get pregnant, with the hope that the pregnant person will quit a job, is the best and fastest way to get that job? Despicable.
It’s one of several references to teen pregnancy that the movie makes, with each reference never mentioning birth control. These teens have easy access to birth control. They just don’t seem to care to use it. This lack of concern about birth control is a reflection of two different cultures depicted in the movie: a working-class culture where teen pregnancies are not unusual and a strict Catholic-school culture where it’s taught that unwed sex is sinful and use of birth control is not endorsed by the Vatican.
Although the five main characters go to a Catholic school, most of “Our Ladies” takes place when the school’s choir travels to the Scottish capital of Edinburgh, to compete in a national competition. The choir leader is a stereotypical strict, uptight middle-aged nun named Sister Condron (played by Kate Dickie), whom the five pals secretly call Sister Condom because the nun is very much against pre-marital sex. She warns the students about being around men who will “use and discard girls like you.”
Before the five friends go on the school bus trip to Edinburgh, there are multiple scenes where they talk about their sex lives and sex fantasies. Kyla has been sleeping with Dickie Dickerson (played by Alex Hope), a guitarist in her band. Finnoula has had sex with him too. Manda just wants to get drunk and get laid, preferably by a good-looking guy with a job.
Chell starts giving details about what sex with bondage is like. And that leads Orla to confess that she has a fantasy about having sex while tied to a tree and being lightly whipped with rosary beads. You know where all of this is headed, of course. Orla wouldn’t be the narrator of this sex-oriented movie if she didn’t lose her virginity and didn’t have her fantasy fulfilled.
In case it isn’t made clear enough how much sex is on the minds of these five teens, they pull some harmless juvenile pranks on the bus trip to Edinburgh. They have hand-made paper signs that they display through the bus windows, to get the attention of men driving in cars next to the bus. The signs say things like “Shag Me,” “Snog Me,” “Shag Her” and “She Loves the Bondage,” which is a sign that they put above the head of a sleeping Sister Condron.
It isn’t all lighthearted joking around on the bus though. Clique leader Finnoula shows her “mean girl” side when a fellow choir member named Kay (played by Eve Austin) tries to sit near the five friends and join in on their conversation. Finnoula refuses to let Kay sit near them and insults her because she thinks that Kay (who is the daughter of wealthy doctor) is a spoiled rich girl. Feeling humiliated and rejected, Kay sheepishly walks away and sits next to another choir member, who notices that Kay looks sad, and has the decency to treat Kay with respect. It’s later revealed in the movie that Finnoula’s seeming animosity toward Kay is a façade to hide Finnoula’s attraction to Kay.
“Our Ladies” is built on the faulty concept that a strict Catholic high school choir in a national competition wouldn’t have the choir members on a very regimented schedule where it would be nearly impossible to sneak off unnoticed the day and night before the event. Anyone who knows what national choir events/competitions are like knows that the choirs have to spend a lot of time rehearsing the day and/or night before the event. And so, it’s a huge stretch of credibility that the teens of “Our Ladies” gallivant around Edinburgh as if they’re on some sort of holiday.
Most of what happens in the movie happens during the day and night before the big choir competition. The teens’ plans for debauchery get set into motion during the day, when they go shopping for clothes that they think will make them look sexy. These are the clothes that they will wear when they go partying at pubs and nightclubs. They choose outfits that, to put it kindly, would give many people the wrong impression that these are borderline/barely legal teens who might charge money for dates.
That’s not to say that these five pals (who are about 17 or 18, based on conversations in the movie) should not choose whatever they want to wear. But the movie’s costume design choices (which are ultimately the director’s choices) are indicative of this leering “male gaze” tone that permeates throughout the film. The impression viewers will get is that the director didn’t just want to make these Catholic school girls look like sexually adventurous free spirits. He wanted them to dress like hookers for most of the movie.
And these teens have no shortage of arrogance. At a restaurant/pub, they promptly order a round of drinks at their table and set some of the drinks on fire. A waiter politely approaches them and says that the manager has asked them not to light fires at the table, for their own safety. They all take turns taunting this unlucky employee to his face, by making sexually derogatory comments, speculating about his sexual prowess, and saying things like, “He’d be lucky to shag us.” Finnoula then coldly and haughtily tells the waiter that they paid for the drinks and they can do whatever the hell they want.
This is not “female empowerment.” This is inexcusable sexual harassment and causing a fire hazard, but the movie makes it look like some girls just wanting to have some fun. Imagine the outrage if the genders were reversed and the same things were said under the same circumstances. Bad customers who act this way deserve to be thrown out, but the movie wants people to think that because teenage girls are saying and doing these awful things, it’s supposed to be cute and hilarious. It’s one of the irritating things about this movie, because it’s so enamored with the “naughty Catholic school girl” theme that it tries to make people think that a boorish scene like that is funny, when it’s actually cringeworthy.
It’s very misguided when filmmakers try to make an entire movie look like it’s feminist-friendly, when it’s really just a movie about females behaving badly and getting away with it. It’s as if the filmmakers are saying that being a feminist means that you have to be unnecessarily disrespectful to people who’ve done nothing wrong to you. With the exception of Orla, all of the teen friends in “Our Ladies” don’t have much charm. They’re mostly selfish and bratty.
That’s not to say that other comedic and dramatic elements of the movie don’t work well, but that’s largely due to the talent of the movie’s cast members whose performances are the main reasons why this movie watchable. No one is saying that teens have to be portrayed as perfect, because personality perfection is unrealistic. But the way that “Our Ladies” was made, it just portrays these teenage female friends as so fixated on their pursuit of intoxication and sex that it almost renders them as two-dimensional characters.
Viewers will get the impression that “Our Ladies” director Caton-Jones exploited the “naughty Catholic school girls” theme for this movie, without giving much thought to the fact that teenage girls have other aspirations and dreams besides sex. Female teenage friendships aren’t just talking about partying and getting laid. Teenagers don’t need to be interested in a university education to have thoughts or ideas on what they want to do with their lives after high school. Except for Kyla’s dreams of becoming a rock star and Manda’s goal to marry a man with job, it’s not even mentioned what the other friends have in mind on how they want to spend their time after high school.
Some of the scenes aren’t very well-written. For example, in the last third of the film, it’s revealed whether or not Sister Condron finds out that the five friends have sneaked off to party in Edinburgh. The five pals know they could be expelled if they’re found out, but they don’t seem to care. The movie never explains why they would risk being expelled when they’re so close to graduating—all for some cheap thrills in Edinburgh. Why should audiences root for people this shallow?
A less problematic scene but one that still raises questions is where Kyla, Manda, Orla and Chell go pub crawling, they arrive at a pub, but Orla and Chell are refused entry because they look underage. (The minimum legal age to drink alcohol in the United Kingdom is 18.) Orla and Chell act irritated and insulted, but they show no proof of their age, and neither do Kyla and Manda, who go in the pub without Orla and Chell. Why don’t any of them have IDs, either real or fake, if they intended to go to various pubs and nightclubs? It’s never explained in the movie.
Finnoula has decided to go off and do her own exploring of Edinburgh, which is why she’s apart from her friends for most of the partying scenes. While she’s at a pub by herself, guess who just happens to be there too? Kay, the choir member whom Finnoula insulted on the bus.
Finnoula and Kay start talking, make a tentative truce, have some drinks together, and find out they have something in common: They both had sex with Dickie, the guitarist in Kyla’s band. (He sure gets around.)
Not only did Kay sleep with Dickie, the encounter was also a threesome with a local young woman named Catriona (played by Megan Shandley), who appears to be in her late teens or early 20s. Finnoula admits to Kay that she’s jealous that Kay got to experience a threesome because, as Finnoula says, “I’ve always wanted to try it with a girl.”
In Kay and Finnoula’s conversation, it’s hinted that because of the large percentage of women in the pub, it’s probably a lesbian/queer-friendly pub. It’s easy to speculate that might have been the reason why bi-curious Finnoula wanted to check out this pub without her friends being there too. Kay seems to be more comfortable with admitting that she’s somewhere on the queer spectrum, while Finnoula is a lot more hesitant or insecure about saying out loud what she thinks her sexual identity might be.
As Kay and Finnoula drink some more, Finnoula predictably begins to look at Kay longingly. And then (as what usually happens in a movie about teenagers who get drunk), there’s the inevitable vomit scene. Kay throws up, and it’s not just because she’s drunk. Kay makes another confession that comes as no surprise, considering that people in this movie seem to have total disregard for birth control.
A realistic part of the movie is how easily these teens are picked up by older men. During their pub crawling, Orla, Chell, Manda and Kyla meet three male friends who are about 10 to 15 years older than the teens. Their leader (played by Stuart Martin) is cocky and aggressive in his approach. His best friend Bobby (played by Jack Grenlees) is a recent divorcé who’s still trying to get over the end of his marriage. Quiet and shy Danny (played by Chris Fulton) just seems to be tagging along with no real interest in hooking up with anyone. Danny ends up doing something that becomes a major turning point in the story.
At first, the teens act like they won’t give these men the time of day. Manda is particularly rude with her rejection. But the drunker the teens get and with the lure of free alcohol at a house party, it’s not surprising that Chell, Manda, Kyla and the men end up at Bobby’s apartment at one point in the movie. Orla isn’t there because she’s spending time with a potential boyfriend named Stephen (played by Martin Quinn), while Finnoula is spending time with Kay.
The “party” at Bobby’s place is one of the movie’s more comedic scenes, because the teens find out that going home with these older men is not quite the fun experience that the teens were expecting. Bobby begins watching his wedding video and sobs like a heartbroken child, which dampens the festive mood considerably but cracks the image that he wanted to project of being a smooth ladies’ man. Bobby locks himself in the apartment’s only bathroom to have a crying fit. Chell desperately needs to urinate, but Bobby ignores her pleas to let her use the toilet.
And so, Chell decides to urinate in Bobby’s kitchen sink that’s filled with dirty dishes. She says out loud that the dishes were going to be cleaned later anyway. As she’s urinating, Manda teases Chell by calling out to Bobby and telling him that he needs to come into the kitchen to see something, with the hope that Bobby will catch Chell in the act. Later, the alpha male of this trio tries to impress the girls by doing a naked headstand (yes, there’s full-frontal male nudity here), which ends up being a painful but amusing misfire.
Amid all of the raunchy scenes in “Our Ladies,” the move takes a clumsy tonal shift by having Kyla break into song during a scene montage, as if this movie is suddenly a musical. It seems weird and out-of-place, as if something out of “Glee” was dropped into this movie. There’s also a cheerful musical montage scene toward the end where the characters sing along to Big Country’s 1983 hit “In a Big Country.” If anything, that song will stick in your head long after seeing this movie.
“Our Ladies” might also make people laugh at what these teens think is “edgy” partying—going to some dingy karaoke bars populated by a lot of dorky people who can’t dance well. It’s at one of these karaoke places that Orla sees a guy, who’s maybe a year or two older than she is, doing karaoke on stage. It’s an “attraction at first sight” scene, complete with Orla walking in slow-motion while she stares at him with googly eyes. It’s at this point that you know she’s going to want this guy to be the one to take her virginity. And when he finishes his karaoke performance, Orla claps and cheers so loudly that her friends notice that she’s got her sights set on him.
The guy who caught Orla’s eye is Stephen, who eventually meets Orla on the dance floor. He’s sweet and nerdy, which seems to be exactly what Orla wants. In their “meet cute” moment, Stephen says that he has eyeglasses that’s he’s self-conscious about wearing. Orla says she has a mouth retainer that she’s self-conscious about wearing. They both agree to put on these items of respective embarrassment at the same time, right there on the dance floor. When they do, they look at each other like, “Oh, now I see the real you.” Yes, it’s that kind of scene.
Orla, Kyla, Chell and Manda also get up on stage to have their karaoke moment. They sing “Tainted Love” together, with Kyla predictably having a solo turn in the song. It’s another moment that seems like it was thrown in the movie to give the movie a cutesy sheen to soften some of the harshness all of these teens’ raw talk about bondage and about treating guys like sex toys.
“Our Ladies” often has an awkward mismatch of crassness and corniness. As vulgar as the crassness is, it’s a lot more realistic than the corniness. Nowhere is this mismatch more evident than a sequence where three members of the clique are having sex at the same time in three different places. The other two members of the clique set off fireworks as a prank, not knowing at that exact moment that one of their friends sees the fireworks while having an orgasm. Later, this friend finds out it was two of her friends who were behind the reason why she saw fireworks during sex. Yes, it’s that kind of movie.
And there are random things in the movie that are hit or miss, depending on what someone thinks is funny. One example is an off-the-wall cameo from David Hasselhoff as himself, during the movie’s end credits. It has to do with one of the teen friends meeting Hasselhoff in 1996, but the Hasselhoff in this movie looks like Hasselhoff in 2018 (which was when this movie was filmed), with no de-aging visual effects for Hasselhoff. Make of that what you will about this filmmaker choice to put Hasselhoff in the movie in such an out-of-left-field way.
So what does this movie get right? There are several less-dramatic moments that ring very true and are great representations of authentic female friendships: The shopping scenes look very genuine and relatable. In one of these scenes, a few snobby young women stare at Orla and make catty remarks to her, to try to make her feel uncomfortable because of her do-rag, but Orla’s friends react with a fiery and commendable verbal defense. The scenes where the teen friends do their hair and makeup together are joyful and authentic, even if we’ve seen these type of “let’s get ready for a girls’ night out” scenes many times before in other movies.
There are also scenes where the teens check out potential dates/sex partners and make comments that women definitely say amongst themselves in similar scenarios. And there are scenes where even these rebels sometimes show some boundaries, such as a scene where a very drunk Manda tries to coax Chell or Kyla into doing a threesome with her and one of the older men who picked them up at a nightclub. However, Chell and Kyla decline because they don’t want to be pressured into something that they don’t want to do.
And most of all, the five actresses who portray these five friends have believable chemistry together, even if some of the scenarios and dialogue written for them miss the mark. Greive and Lawrie stand out the most for two different reasons: Grieve’s Orla is the most transparent, while Lawrie’s Finnoula is the most complicated. Messham’s Manda is a “love her or hate her” loudmouth, while Siu’s Kayla is a talented singer but very difficult to like.
Morison’s Chell is perhaps the most underdeveloped character. The movie should have had more exploration of how her father’s death impacted Chell and her family. And unfortunately, Orla’s leukemia is used as a superficial plot device. In fact, the movie needed more context for why these five teens are so rebellious. Viewers with enough life experience know that Sister Condron—who’s in the movie for less than 15 minutes, but is still portrayed as the story’s chief antagonist—isn’t the real reason why these teens are acting out in this way.
There’s a lot of anger and mean-spiritedness behind the worst things that these teens do in the movie, but viewers will get no meaningful answers on the reasons for this anger. Chell’s grief over her father’s death is the only thing that the movie offers as very brief speculation for Chell’s rebellion. Everyone else’s family background is a blank void in this movie. And there’s no real sense of how long these five friends have been this rebellious.
These five friends are not evil people, but the movie often presents them as quite hollow. And as far as teen rebel movies go, “Our Ladies” can be an entertaining and sometimes amusing diversion, but it’s not substantial enough to be a classic. The classic teen rebel movies that resonate with people the most are the ones where people see that the teen rebels have a lot more going on in their lives than whatever acts of rebellion that they’re committing.
Sony Pictures Releasing International released “Our Ladies” in select U.S. cinemas on June 18, 2021. The movie’s release in the United Kingdom and Ireland is on August 27, 2021.