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R: ARCHIVE, S: REVIEWS, D: 07/10/1997, B: Alicia Potter,

Virgin territory

First-timer Mo Ogrodnik gets it Ripe

by Alicia Potter

RIPE. Directed and written by Mo Ogrodnik. With Monica Keena, Daisy Eagan, Gordon Currie, and Ron Brice. A TriMark Pictures release. At the Coolidge Corner.

When Ripe's 14-year-old twin heroines stir a chorus of catcalls and whistles from a Quonset hut full of Army recruits, nubile Violet basks in the attention like a teenage Betty Grable, waving with a coy, "Mornin', boys!" At her side, tomboy Rosie defiantly gives their boorish admirers the finger. Indeed, there comes a time in a young woman's life when she realizes the effect she has in a clingy tank top. As first-time writer/director Mo Ogrodnik bares in this candid coming-of-age gem, sometimes that epiphany brings an exhilarated sense of power, sometimes a furious disgust. Most often it's a little of both.

It's no coincidence the inseparable sisters are named for flora; they are undeniably in bloom. Dancing on the threshold between girlish giggles and womanly curves, the pair escape from an abusive home life when their parents blow up in a car crash. Unharmed, Rosie (Daisy Eagan) and Violet (Monica Keena) ditch the burning wreck and run away (rather unbelievably) without a tear of grief, to start a new life. They end up at a ramshackle military base where the testosterone is as thick as the humidity. "I made her promise no boys, just the two of us forever," says Rosie of her pretty sister. But it's not long before Violet and the barracks' sinewy groundskeeper, Pete (Gordon Currie), are eyeing each other in a flirtation that threatens to snap the girls' deep sororal bond.

By casting the duo as fraternal twins, Harvard grad Ogrodnik plumbs the dichotomous nature of women's sexuality. The twosome divvy up the contrapuntal feelings of curiosity/horror, arousal/repression, and aggression/passivity that pair off to give adolescence its bad rap. Ogrodnik does paint the twins with broad strokes and little shading; invariably, while tough-cookie Rosie's out knocking off a few rounds with a pistol, dreamy Violet steals away to masturbate or sneak a peek at a Playgirl.

The actresses' talents, however, transcend the characters' sometimes narrow dimensionality. "You're a natural," praises Pete after brushing lips with Violet, a compliment that could easily describe the freshness these two discoveries bring to their roles. Eagan is a young Lili Taylor as the smart-mouthed spitfire Rosie; Keena beams vibrant expressiveness into Violet with her full-moon face. Perhaps the film's most unexpected characterization is Currie as Pete, who comes across as more Jerry Lee Lewis than Michael Kennedy, the kind of friendly but confused dolt who doesn't think twice about having a 14-year-old girlfriend.

The drama is flush with sexual imagery, from the crunchy coitus of two beetles in the opening scene to a spurt of ejaculation motifs reminiscent of Thelma and Louise's inseminatory crop duster and gushing hoses. And as the six o'clock news will tell you, there's no bastion of rampant masculinity like the military. In a spectacle of raw machismo and primitive sensuality, the strapping soldiers build a bonfire, thrusting kerosene and shaken-up liquor bottles before wrestling like overheated animals in the light of the blaze. Rosie watches the violently homoerotic but strangely arousing ritual from beneath a truck, her face a mesmerized mixture of fear, awe, and curiosity.

The feelings that crash to the surface in Ripe are hard enough to deal with at summer camp, never mind boot camp. But Ogrodnik's honest handling of such issues just may make her the Judy Blume of up-and-coming filmmakers. Violet's seduction of Pete nearly embarrasses with its naive earnestness, in contrast to what is sure to be a peep show of white-panty writhing in the upcoming Lolita (if and when the hyped-up heavybreather can seduce a distributor). And for once the portrayal of a young woman's loss of virginity isn't an over-eroticized cherry pop; Ogrodnik bravely and evocatively pares the rite of passage to a moment of wide-eyed awareness, wincing pain, and deep-sigh relief. It's just too bad Ripe softens to a hollow, portentous ending.

Despite the film's earthy, edgy sexuality, the most haunting scenes are those that deflower the most brutal myth of all -- that childhood is forever. As Rosie watches Violet hand over not just her body but also her heart to Pete, her anguish, incredulity, and betrayal ache with genuine pathos and a shadowy sense of tragedy. She ripens only to realize that her world of innocence has turned rotten.