As Faye Vaughn, the passionately clueless English lit teacher at a Canadian girls’ boarding school, Jackie Burroughs spends most of her meager time in Lea Poole’s teen-lesbian melodrama, Lost and Delirious, looking bewildered. What a sad turn of events for this remarkable artist, who in 1987 co-wrote, co-directed, and starred in 1987’s A Winter Tan, one of the more powerfully strange and frankly devastating films to come around in the past couple of decades, based on the true life adventures of “sexual pilgrim” Maryse Holder in Acapulco (including her murder by a pimp in 1978). The film was designed to be offensive and unsettling, part of an anti-censorship demonstration by Burroughs and her collaborators. And it was. Very few people actually saw A Winter Tan, but for those who did, it was an unforgettable experience.
Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for Lost and Delirious, but Burroughs can hardly be held responsible. Her supporting role—the teacher who means well but feels silenced by her own sexual relationship with a fellow female teacher—is banal and by the numbers. She only serves as ineffectual audience for the hysterics of her unhappy teenaged charges. These include the new girl, Mary nicknamed Mouse (Mischa Barton), her vivacious rich-girl roommate Victoria (Jessica Pare), and her other roommate, the hugely emotional “tomboy” Pauline (Piper Perabo). Adapted from Susan Swan’s novel, The Wives of Bath, by screenwriter Judith Thompson, Lost and Delirious takes its adolescent protagonists’ heartaches very seriously, in theory an excellent idea. Certainly, too few movies take kids’ experiences and feelings seriously, and too many take the road-trippy-fart-jokey-high-school-prommy approach, treating kids’ bodies and romances like adult wet-dream material.
Lost and Delirious doesn’t do that, and it isn’t wholly awful, at least not at first. But that only makes the disappointment that it eventually becomes loom even larger. At the beginning of the film, Mouse arrives at school. With still-raw memories of her mother’s death from cancer, she feels abandoned by her dad and his new wife (who decided to send her away): “I felt like a tiny mouse heading straight for the mouth of the cat,” she sighs in her voice-over. Smaller and meeker than the girls she’ll end up running with, Mouse’s outsider’s perspective is the film’s means to acquaint you with the complicated experience of girls’ boarding school (though the film’s focus is so narrow, you really only get to know about four students). Mouse is immediately adopted by Paulie, a charismatic troublemaker whose initial acts on screen are smoking cigarettes surreptitiously, slipping alcohol into the Welcome Day punch, and playing her boom-box really loud so she can boogie down (appropriately, to the Violent Femmes’ “Add It Up”: “Why can’t I get! Just one kiss!?”). “Rage more!” is Paulie’s own clarion call, to which Victoria and Mouse respond with the mix of fear and desire that comes with being uniformed schoolgirls with surging hormones . . . or maybe just girls in a movie that seems frozen in the 1950s, even though it’s set now.
From here on, the girl-bonding narrative becomes increasingly intricate, as Mouse, Tory, and Paulie become roommates, and then go on to spend most all their on-screen time titillating one another and telling disastrous my-mother stories late at night (as of Mouse’s dead mom isn’t enough tragedy, Paulie’s gave her up for abortion and Tory’s is wickedly cold and distant). The titillating part is amped up between Tory and Paulie: it turns out that they’re in love, indicated by their gazing into one another’s eyes meaningfully, kissing on the roof (while dear Mouse says, “I thought they were practicing for boys”), roughhousing playfully on one or the other’s bed, and—the major clue that Mouse finally notes—having sex late at night when everyone else is supposed to be asleep.
The idea of rooming with “lesbos” alarms Mouse (again serving as a supposed audience surrogate), but the fact of it is less scary. This is the film’s most effective insight, that experience can actually change the way kids (or adults, we might hope) think and act. But Lost and Delirious pushes past this bright spot, right on through to overwrought crisis. Though Mouse admits that after a while the noises Tory and Paulie make at night stop bothering her, she’s pretty much alone in that sentiment at this peculiarly time-warped all-girls school. Somehow, lesbianism (even girl-girl crushes or experimental sexual activities) is completely unheard of and so, much feared and mocked. Even though Miss Vaughn acts as if she sympathizes with their situation—especially with Paulie, whose proclamations of love, disguised as recitations from Shakespeare, are eerily intense—everyone else on campus is ignorant, mean, or outright phobic. When Tory’s little sister catches Tory in bed with Paulie, Tory—being a 16-year-old—frets about her wealthy and super-situated family dropping her and drops Paulie cold.
Paulie, being a full-on romantic, can’t let go. And so she absorbs all of the many full-on romantic aspects of her immediate environment—from her poetry assignments to her fencing lessons to her own “secret” experience out in the woods, where she trains an ailing falcon to land on her arm—and turns them into her own personal drama. From here on, the film never really steps back from Paulie’s deeply aggrieved sensibility, which is strange, given that it continues to be narrated by Mouse. Still, you see Paulie alone or performing her anguish for Tory or Miss Vaughn, secenes to which Mouse has no access. If the point of view were more consistent, the film might make more sense, though it would lose its immersion in Paulie’s emotional upheavals (which resemble those of most adolescent girls who find solace in Sylvia Plath, Kurt Cobain, or Billie Holiday). In a role that’s all but impossible to play subtly, Perabo gives a brave performance, as much during Paulie’s quieter moments as during her extended breakdown (and these scenes do go on and on). (I hold out hope for Perabo, despite her roles in Coyote Ugly and The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle: I’m thinking she’s the next Diane Lane, just waiting for her breakout role, like Lane’s in A Walk on the Moon; this is not that role, though she’s very good in it.)
As horrible as Paulie’s decent into depression and madness is to see, the adults’ complete ineffectuality and vapidity become the film’s most upsetting aspects. (Though again, from kids’ perspectives, teachers and parents usually seem just this ignorant.) Still, it’s frustrating that the film resorts to the corniest of devices to provide Mouse with the skimpiest of reasonable adult society, that is, the sage Native American school gardener, Joseph (Graham Greene). On spotting him rummaging in the dirt, Mouse is reminded of happier gardening days with her mom, and so she asks if she can work with him. He asks her name, she pauses, then replies, “It’s in transition.” This thoughtful answer is enough for Joseph, so patient and supportive is he. If only the movie were also. Unlike, say, A Winter Tan, Lost and Delirious is overly concerned with not offending its audience, and so makes Paulie so exaggeratedly tragic that her pain cannot be denied. Such overwrought representation detracts from what’s really at stake, for Paulie and the girls who might see or remember themselves in her passion and courage.