My Brilliant Friend
For girls—and perhaps for boys, too, I don’t really know—teenage life is a marathon full of unexpected surges that send you darting ahead and devastating stumbles that leave you trailing behind the pack. There’s an unspoken competition in adolescence; it’s dangerous to be the first or the last girl to grow breasts or get your period or go on a date. Every girl fights her own internal struggle over where she fits in to the crowd.
Lila is a working woman, and she’s grown closer to Carmela, a teenage girl with all the physical bearing, and knowledge, of a much older woman. Lila is also still pre-pubescent, despite her striking looks, while Elena discovers that she’s not, in fact, dying when she discovers blood on a piece of the rough paper she uses to wipe herself. She’s gotten her period—though the girls don’t use that term—and as Carmela explains, now she can have a baby. Elena may still attend school and remains naive about all matters sexual (like the Solara boys’ “spin” around the block with Ada Capuccio), but her body has developmentally leapt ahead of Lila’s. And for Lila that fact is maddening—her dearest friend not only attends the middle school she so desperately wanted to, she’s also jumping ahead in the journey toward womanhood. It’s no wonder that Lila reacts a bit childishly, announcing, “I haven’t got it because I don’t want it” with a jealous fury in her eyes.
Years have passed since episode two, and as the camera pans around the neighborhood the young children magically transform into teens in front of our eyes. Director Saverio Costanza told Vulture that he considered over 9,000 girls for the roles of Elena and Lila and that he chose the younger actresses first, then their older versions, “because we wanted the search for the young girls to be as unrestricted as possible.” However he managed it, he did a remarkable job—and not just for the two leads, but for every child in the dusty neighborhood. No pointed dialogue is necessary to know precisely who is who. And Margherita Mazzucco, who plays Elena, along with Gaia Girace, the elder Lila, are astonishing doppelgangers of their younger counterparts, in looks, sensibility, and even spirit on screen. It feels more like Costanza mimicked Richard Linklater’s years-long filming process for Boyhood than cast separate actresses.
In the intervening years, Lila and Elena have drifted apart. As the more forceful of the pair, Lila sets the tone for the relationship and Elena dutifully—lifelessly—follows. So when Elena approaches Lila, bleeding and anxious, and asks to speak to her alone, it’s a telling slight that Lila says Carmela must stay. The closed-off intimacy of their relationship is now stretched loose. “None of what I did by myself,” Elena offers, “was thrilling enough.” Lila’s absence sucks the light out of her small, often cheerless world.
In every way, Elena is falling apart. Her mother practically scolds her about using pads, insisting that she must pin them very securely and be careful to wedge them firmly between her legs lest they fall out: the accompanying embarrassment, she seems to say, would be deserved. The middle school teacher rebukes her too, telling Elena that she risks failing the entire year if her poor Latin grades continue, and humiliating her at the blackboard when Elena can’t conjugate. (Though at least she isn’t a “lost cause,’ the depressing label the maestra sticks on a fellow student.) Her skin is speckled with constellations of acne, an affliction she can’t stop herself from constantly touching, which most likely only makes it worse.
In her beloved bildungsroman A Tree Grows in Brooklyn (another novel in which a teenage girl gets her period but believes the blood to be a sign of impending death), Betty Smith’s protagonist Francie Nolan crosses off a diary entry: “Am I curious about sex?” becomes “I am curious about sex.” While “criminal sex” is “an open book” in Francie’s impoverished Brooklyn neighborhood, there’s “great hush-hush” about consensual sex. The same is true in Elena and Lila’s neighborhood, where the Solaras can threateningly lure a girl into their car in broad daylight in the town square, and citizens will either smile at the spectacle or avert their eyes.
The entire scene, even at its tame beginning, bubbles over with discomfort. Ada Capuccio (Melina’s daughter) isn’t a catch for one of the rich (and supposedly handsome, although they aren’t my cup of tea) Solara boys, Marcello and Michele. She’s poor, as we know, and isn’t a great town beauty. Yet the boys coax her over to their shiny new car, asking her to spin around and questioning if she put her lipstick on just for them. The car’s novelty—and their parents’ stature—lends them power. (It was just last episode we saw Signor Solara call his then-much-younger boys over to kick in one of Don Achille’s associate’s faces.) For Elena, the sight is terrifying—she can sense from Ada’s body language just how little she wants to get into the car. For Lila it’s an outright attack—her claim that “they’ve got purple snakes that squirt poison in your belly” is certainly silly in its wording, but metaphorically rings true. And she’s right that they both harass Ada because “she’s poor and doesn’t count.” They’re even able to pull off yet another uninterrupted public beating, this time knocking Ada’s brother Antonio to the ground after he defends her honor.
But the most telling scene in the whole episode takes place in the school bathroom, when Elena—very surprisingly—lifts her shirt for 10 lira (lest you be fooled into thinking that’s about $10, 10 lira were worth about 52 cents… in 2001) and lets two of her classmates check out whether or not her breasts are real or “cotton stuffing,” i.e. padding. We realize later in the episode that Elena still doesn’t wear a bra; when the boys come in, practically licking their lips with delirium over the potential of seeing a girl without her top, it’s her bare breasts she flashes at them. But why does she do it? Elena is a “good girl”—never in trouble with boys and seemingly horrified by the Solaras treatment of Ada. She says she does it because a part of Lila “is inside her,” but that doesn’t quite ring true.
Things begin to improve for Lenù as the episode goes on. Maestra Olivieri, for all her meddling, convinces the Grecos to send Elena on to high school. Her mother finally offers some words of encouragement in her studies, telling Elena “No one’s saying you can’t do it. You can do it.” And her discovery of the library—a new and revelatory institution in their small, out-of-the-way quartiere—spurs on both her and Lila in their studies.
Her moments with Lila are some of the most tender imaginable between two young girls. Lila too has been studying Latin, but in secret, and of course she’s mastered it with an ease that eludes Elena. The former studies because it’s her passion, and the latter because it’s her duty. But in perhaps the most insightful conversation about grammar in recorded history, Lila sets aside her jealousy and gives Elena the advice she’s needed all along; Elena has been searching for the subject in every Latin sentence, but Lila, ever the doer, the mover, urges her to find the verb and go on from there.
The two have created a dually parasitic sustaining relationship, a description I mean in the best way possible. Discovering that Elena is the best in her class spurs Lila to take out so many books from the library that she needs to use her father and mother and brother’s names to select even more. (In perhaps a bit of foresight, Lila’s prize is Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment, in which Raskolnikov plots to kill another man for his money, believing that wealth will free him from all his problems.) When the maestra prompts Elena to tell Lila that she’s received a perfect score on her middle school test and that she’ll be studying Greek in high school, her encouragement is weighted with the knowledge that Lila—though she has other dreams, like the shoes she’s designing with Rino—will diligently keep up.
But when Michele and Marcello Solara pull up beside the girls, leering through the open window and snapping Elena’s bracelet off her wrist, Lila’s bright future takes on a bit of shadow. Her threat, that she’ll slit Marcello’s throat if she touches them again, won’t be taken lightly.