Release Date(s)1981 (January 19, 2021)
Studio(s)Universal Classics (Umbrella Entertainment – Sunburnt Screens #16)
- Film/Program Grade: B+
- Video Grade: B
- Audio Grade: B
- Extras Grade: B
[Editor’s Note: This is a REGION-FREE Blu-ray release.]
Puberty Blues is a 1981 Australian coming-of-age comedy/drama that provides a fascinating time capsule of a specific surf culture in Australia, but in a way that captures the universal challenges faced by teenagers everywhere. Directed by Bruce Beresford, the film is based on the best-selling book of the same name by Kathy Lette and Gabrielle Carey. The two had written the novel while they were still teenagers, and its frank depictions of sexuality, drugs, and the consequences that result from both had proven very controversial. Yet the honest insights that it contained appealed to Beresford, who pursued bringing it to the screen.
The path to get there wasn’t necessarily easy, as some elements inevitably needed to change. The protagonists in the book were 13, so the screenplay by Margaret Kelly raised their age to 16, which was the legal age of consent in Australia, in order to avoid any potential censorship issues. The script also eliminated darker elements like abortion and miscarriage, with the latter being more happily resolved as a simple missed period. That upset Lette, who later accused the film of “sanitizing” their story, and of softening some of the harsh consequences that she and Carey had presented. (It also left the door open for future adaptations, and a television series was eventually produced in 2012.)
It's certainly true that the film version of Puberty Blues is far lighter than the book—it even adds a slapstick dustup between the surfers and the lifeguards that wouldn’t feel out of place in an American teen sex comedy of the Eighties. Yet it doesn’t shy away from unpleasant elements like the girls’ awkward and unromantic first sexual experiences, and while some of the drug material is missing, what’s left is still rather harsh. It may not be quite as grim as the book, but the world that they navigate is still an unforgiving one (well, aside from that convenient Deus ex machina with the potential pregnancy, anyway).
Nell Schofield and Jad Capelja are both well-cast as the two leads, Debbie and Sue. Schofield got the job partly because she could surf, which made the finale easier to shoot, but she gives a heartfelt performance. Sadly, Capelja’s struggles were very real, and after a lifelong battle with schizophrenia, she took her own life in 2010. She only made one other feature film after this, but she’ll always be remembered thanks to the legacy of Puberty Blues, which remains an important part of Australian cultural history.
Cinematographer Don McAlpine shot Puberty Blues on 35 mm film using Panavision Panaflex cameras with C-series anamorphic lenses, framed at 2.35:1 for its theatrical release. Umbrella hasn’t given any information regarding the master that they used for their Blu-ray, and while materials related to Puberty Blues are held in the collection at the National Film and Sound Archive in Australia, it doesn’t appear that the NFSA did any restoration work on the film. There’s light damage like speckling and small scratches throughout, as well as minor instability in a few shots. The optically printed opening titles are soft, with coarse grain, though that improves once they’re over. Scenes set at night can get pretty noisy, with weak contrast. Now, with all of those nitpicks out of the way, this is actually a fine transfer overall. Outside of the optical work, it’s nicely detailed, and the grain looks natural. The color balance is quite good, and the flesh tones are all accurate. The damage is definitely there, but so are the organic textures of the film itself. This is one case where the lovely cinematography of McAlpine shines out through any defects in the presentation. It’s not perfect, but it does look like proper film, free of any obvious digital manipulation.
Audio is offered in English 2.0 mono DTS-HD Master Audio, with optional English subtitles Everything is clear and mostly undistorted, though there’s just a touch of excessive sibilance in some of the dialogue.
Umbrella’s Region-Free Blu-ray release of Puberty Blues is #16 in their Sunburnt Screens line. The insert is reversible, with the flip side omitting the mandatory Australian “M” classification from the front cover artwork, and also substituting the theatrical poster art for the back cover blurb. Most of the extras are ported over from Umbrella’s 2013 Blu-ray release, with the exception being the new introduction from Bruce Beresford—although it’s worth pointing out that the previous disc offered the film in 1080i, while this version is 1080p, so it’s still a significant upgrade.
- Introduction from Bruce Beresford (HD – 1:58)
- Audio Commentary with Nell Schofield and Don McAlpine
- Rewinding Puberty Blues (HD – 31:09)
- Interviews with Nell Schofield and Bruce Beresford (Upscaled HD – 13:24)
- Photo Gallery (HD – 39 in all – 4:37)
- Theatrical Trailer (HD – 2:15)
Schofield and McAlpine are pretty unfocused in their commentary track, sometimes just reacting to what’s happening onscreen, and also lapsing into silence occasionally. They give some stories about the production, including what it was like shooting on the various locations. McAlpine gives some technical information about shooting the film in anamorphic, and also tells some tales like how Beresford got addicted to Space Invaders after filming the scene where the kids play the game. The two obviously get along well, with Schofield calling McAlpine a “full-tilt legend,” but it’s not the most engaging of commentary tracks.
The Introduction from Bruce Beresford has him squeezing the history of the film into just two minutes, and he actually does a pretty decent job of it. Rewinding Puberty Blues is a look at the making of the film that reunites actors Tony Hughes, Jay Hackett, Jeff Rhoe, and Schofield. They discuss their own reactions to the book, how they were cast in the film, working with Beresford, and scenes that were uncomfortable to shoot. Schofield spends time reminiscing about the late Jad Capelja. (She also mentions that she’s still trying to locate actress Tina Robinson, who played Freda in the film.) From there, they all talk about attending the premiere in 1981, the film’s success that year, and its legacy today. The Interviews with Schofield and Beresford are a mixture of the two speaking together as well as individually. They examine the book, the film, and what it meant for both of their careers. As someone who has worked internationally as well as in Australia, Beresford makes the interesting point that sometimes films that are the most local end up counterintuitively being the most universal, since people want to see different kinds of things.
Puberty Blues is indeed a combination of the local with the universal; it takes place in a narrow Australian milieu, which may be interesting for those who have never experienced it, but the real appeal still lies in the universal nature of the challenges faced by Debbie and Sue. There are a lot of coming-of-age films of varying quality, but Puberty Blues stands proudly among them as one of the best examples of the genre.
- Stephen Bjork