Little Darlings (4K UHD Review)

  • Reviewed by: Bill Hunt
  • Review Date: Feb 19, 2024
  • Format: 4K Ultra HD
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Little Darlings (4K UHD Review)


Ronald F. Maxwell

Release Date(s)

1980 (February 27, 2024)


Kings Road Productions/Paramount Pictures (Vinegar Syndrome/Cinématographe Films)
  • Film/Program Grade: B
  • Video Grade: A
  • Audio Grade: B+
  • Extras Grade: B

Little Darlings (4K Ultra HD)

Buy it Here!


Seventeen-year-old Angel (Kristy McNichol) lives with her single mom on the wrong side of the tracks. Sixteen-year-old Ferris (Tatum O’Neal) is a rich girl who has everything except her mother, who’s left her father for another man. When each of them gets sent to Camp Little Wolf for the summer, and they end up in the same cabin, the pair dislikes each other immediately. But when the other girls in their cabin learn that they’re virgins, Angel and Ferris soon become the subjects of a bet as to who can loose their virginity first. Angel has her eye on Randy (Matt Dillon), who’s attending a boy’s camp across the lake. But Ferris sets her affections upon a much older man, the camp’s handsome phys ed counselor Gary (Armand Assante), and sets out to seduce him with her innocent charms.

In the annals of 1970-80s pop-culture cinema, Little Darlings is something of a unicorn. Originally developed by Paramount as a teen-girl take on Animal House (1978) and Meatballs (1979), what the studio got instead was a thoughtful coming of age tale with a few adolescent laughs (boy watching, food fights, etc) baked in for good measure. Part of the reason for this is that the film was actually written two women, Kimi Peck and Darlene Young, who gave their young female characters real agency and dared to treat the subject of burgeoning teen sexuality with a bit of thought and care. So too did director Ron Maxwell (The Night the Lights Went Out in Georgia, Gettysburg), who approached the entire project with far more cinematic seriousness than the studio clearly anticipated.

It’s easy to forget now, but at the time Kristy McNichol (along with her brother Jimmy) was a huge child television star, having appeared on CBS’ Apple’s Way and ABC’s Family, multiple installments of the ABC After School Special and Battle of the Network Stars, and the pages of Teen Beat and Dynamite magazines. What’s more, Tatum O’Neal had already appeared on the big screen in Paramount’s Paper Moon (1973)—alongside her father Ryan (a role for which she won the 1974 Best Supporting Actress Oscar)—not to mention the wildly-popular film The Bad News Bears (1976), so she was a major rising star. The same could also be said the film’s two male characters, played by Dillon (in between My Bodyguard and The Outsider) and Assante (pre-Private Benjamin). Note that the film’s cast also includes a young Cynthia Nixon, decades before she’s became famous for Sex and the City.

Upon seeing Maxwell’s first cut of Little Darlings, Paramount began preparing for a box office disaster. Studio executives were thus caught by surprise when the first test screenings of the film, for audiences of San Fernando Valley teenagers, were wildly successful. Teens—both girls and boys alike—loved the film, which soon led to an unanticipated hiccup: The MPAA, in all of its usual Puritan wisdom, gave the film an R rating, despite the fact that it includes no swearing, no violence, no nudity, and only implied sex. This meant that the very audience the film was best suited for would be unable to see it. Fortunately, Gen X latchkey teens proved a typically clever bunch—many still managed to see the film, whether by conning their parents, sneaking into theaters, or watching it on pay cable (HBO and Cinemax). In fact, the film proved so popular that a censored version of Little Darlings was even broadcast on NBC in 1983.

Over the years, the film has taken on a kind of cult status, in part because it was so ahead of its time in terms of depicting young women on screen, but also because of its soundtrack (which included tracks from Blondie, John Lennon, Supertramp, The Cars, The Bellamy Brothers, and Ian Matthews). Music licensing issues that arose after the film’s original VHS and LaserDisc release prevented the film from appearing on DVD or Blu-ray. (In fact, Lionsgate tried to release the film on disc back in 2012, but these issues persisted.) Fortunately, all of those issues have since been resolved such that Little Darlings is finally being made available, not only on Blu-ray but also 4K Ultra HD, as one of the inaugural titles of Vinegar Syndrome’s new Cinématographe Films label, curated with pride and care by our friend Justin LaLiberty.

Little Darlings was shot on 35 mm photochemical film by the Czech cinematographer Beda Batka (Fear, 90 Degrees in the Shade, The Orphan) using Panavision cameras and anamorphic lenses, and it was finished on film at the 2.35:1 scope aspect ratio for theaters. For its release on Ultra HD, a new 4K scan and restoration of the original camera negative was completed in partnership with Paramount, and the film was graded for high dynamic range (only HDR10 is included). And it’s probably fair to say that the lack of activity regarding this film over the years has actually proven beneficial. Apart from optically-produced titles and transitions, which exhibit the usual generation loss and increased grain, this 4K presentation is absolutely gorgeous. Once you get past the titles, image detail is abundant and cleanly-refined, yet with a softness around the edges of the frame that fits the film well and is clearly intended, produced by the use of anamorphic lenses. Texturing is crisp and readily apparent in everything from skin, clothing, and foliage. Photochemical grain is light to medium and varies a little from shot to shot. But the HDR grade is sublime, broadening the overall contrast, deepening shadows, making highlights more naturally bold, and greatly enriching the film’s palette. This is exactly how the late 1970s and early 80s looked, an eclectic mix of rustic earth tones in furnishings and wildly bold colors in clothing, textiles, automobiles, and other objects of daily life. Hats off to all involved here for a stunning 4K restoration, in particular one that’s pleasingly filmic.

The film’s original theatrical audio mix is presented in English 2.0 DTS-HD Master Audio format. It’s a no-frills mix, but offers clear dialogue and pleasing environmental atmospherics (camp sounds, nature calls, etc). In addition, the film’s score and soundtrack are offered in good fidelity. Optional English SDH subtitles are also available.

Cinématographe’s 4K package includes the film on both UHD and 1080p HD on Blu-ray (Region A). Both discs include the following special features:

  • Audio Commentary with Ron Maxwell
  • Audio Commentary with Millie De Chirico

Maxwell’s commentary is fascinating because it reveals how seriously the director took this production—definitely not what you’d expect for a film that was meant by the studio to compete with raunchy, screwball teen comedy fare. De Chirico’s track is also good, featuring lots of context and discussion of the film’s impact and place in cinema history. Until last year, De Chirico was the chief programmer for TCM Underground and she co-hosts the I Saw What You Did podcast. She lives in Atlanta, which just so happens to be where Little Darlings was filmed, and has actually visited many of its locations. So between the two tracks, you’re definitely going to learn more about this film than you ever imagined you needed to know.

To this, the Blu-ray adds the following additional features:

  • Art & Business: Ron Maxwell on Directing Little Darlings (HD – 54:33)
  • Video Essay by Samm Deighan – Don’t Let the Title Fool You: Little Darlings Beyond the Teen Sex Comedy (HD – 19:47)
  • Additional Scenes from the TV Version (HD – 5:53)
  • TV Scenes with Director Introduction (HD – audio feature – 11:14)

Art & Business is a fascinating interview piece with the director. He takes his time telling the story of his career leading up to the point of Little Darlings, but once he gets to the topic at hand he shares an enormous amount of insights and revealing anecdotes about the production, its young stars, how it was developed, and what the studio and audience reaction was. The only downside here is that it almost sounds as if there’s remodeling work going on in the next room, or that something keeps bumping the tripod or the mic. (It’s a minor issue though, and the interview is fascinating enough that it’s worth overlooking.) You also get a little over 5 minutes worth of scenes that were cut from the theatrical release but added back in for later TV broadcasts (against the director’s wishes—he wasn’t even consulted) plus an audio piece in which he introduces those scenes. The last of the disc-based extras is a Video Essay by Samm Deighan, who’s a writer, a special features producer for Vinegar Syndrome, the cohost of the Twitch of the Death Nerve podcast, and a contributor to Diabolique magazine. It’s quite good, working to place Little Darlings in the context of other films of its genre, and contrasting it with other examples from the period.

Naturally, the set’s two discs come packaged in the kind of sturdy hard slipcase that’s become a Vinegar Syndrome staple, which encloses a lovely and fabric-covered Mediabook. This offers 40 pages of production photos, poster art, and liner notes, along with a pair of text essays on the film (including The Three Letter Word: K-I-D by Quatoyiah Murry and The Great American Teen Movie by Kate Hagen.)

Younger cinephiles unfamiliar with Little Darlings will probably find Angel’s constant smoking—not to mention the casual way in which Ferris and Gary’s flirtation is handled—somewhat shocking by today’s standards. But the film accurately captures what it was like to grow up as a teen in the late 70s and early 80s, so dismissing Little Darlings for these reasons would be to completely disregard its genuine merits. My only objection here is that I can’t believe I’m watching this film in bespoke 4K, when I still can’t get even a decent special edition of Tombstone (1993) on Blu-ray, much less Ultra HD—madness! In any case, if this is the kind of unexpected cinematic gem we can expect from future Cinématographe releases, this new label should prove worthy indeed. Little Darlings in 4K is a little gem by any measure.

- Bill Hunt

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