According to Webster’s Dictionary, the term fangirling is defined as a female fan behaving and obsessing in an overexcited fashion. You may or may not forgive me for finding this definition quite amusing, but it sums up my expectations of director Jessica Leski‘s I Used To Be Normal: A Boyband Fangirl Story perfectly.
A film exploring fandom from the female point of view can be incredibly funny to the point of absolute farce, if videos on social media, news reports and YouTube are any indication. So this reviewer went in to see this film with that mindset, hoping to get some laughs during the 90 minute runtime. Did he get what he sought out?
The film follows the stories of four different women who describe their vastly different ways of “fangirling” for their favourite boybands, which consist of The Beatles, One Direction, Take That and The Backstreet Boys. The film explores the length of how far their level of fandom goes, how it impacted them over time and how it positively shaped their lives. It would be hard to stretch out the examination of fangirling is throughout the space of 90 minutes and thankfully the film has more up its sleeve.
Whatever the concept the documentary is going to convey, the best way to do that is to show it with a crucial human element. And while fangirling for boybands may be a foreign and off-putting concept for some, I Used To Be Normal thankfully provides the audience with the human element I.e. the four wonderful subjects assembled.
We first have Elif, a 16-year old high school student of Turkish descent who is a huge One Direction fan. Next we have Sadia, a 25-year old Indian-American writer who is a fan of The Backstreet Boys. Then we have 64-year old Susan, who is an Australian film producer with an affinity for The Beatles. And last but not least, we have Dara, an Australian lesbian woman who fancies Take That. All of them are interesting, likable, distinct and insightful women and are absolutely inspiring in their life stories.
The film capably does an amusing and entertaining attempt to highlight the dizzying highs and the disorienting lows of fangirling and how it gets a less-than-stellar rap, like how Elif’s reactions to One Direction music videos went viral on YouTube. The editing in those sections are spot-on in their timing and inter-cutting of music video footage. But what makes the film so good is that director Leski never resorts to shock or bullying tactics to get laughs, and it is in that tight balancing act that Leski pulls off a very hard feat.
Aside from the realized comedic potential, essentially, it is a film that explores how the role of fangirling can be a positive influence in their lives. And the issues it examines include burgeoning sexuality, womanhood, sexual identity, discovering one’s place in the world, depression, culture clashes, life expectations and especially the emotional catharsis you get once you’re into the spirit of it. Whether it’s about Elif’s gradually decreasing naivety over time, Dara breaking out of her shell with her love of Take That as well as her sexual orientation, Sadia’s increasing state of loneliness due to her dedication to The Backstreet Boys or just good old-fashioned nostalgia of a simpler time from Susan’s point-of-view (although I doubt there’s any shame in being a Beatles fan), the stories are universally relatable and are very emotionally stirring.
Beyond the personal recollections, the film gets into the foundation of what makes a boyband i.e. Dara gives an amusingly sharp Boyband 101 lesson consisting of the meticulous breakdown of the marketing forces at play in crafting and promoting the ideal group. And then we get to the darker side from Sadia’s point of view, courtesy of her adolescent hostility not only for Backstreet Boys rivals ‘NSYNC, but their dedicated and similarly hostile followers.
I Used To Be Normal: A Boyband Fangirl Story was a film that I thought to be laughably farcical but I was dead wrong. It was a joyous, heartwarming and illuminating documentary thanks to director Jessica Leski‘s non-judgmental and passionate approach to its subject and it truly gets why boybands are appealing to general audiences, particularly women, and brings it out in the open that can be enjoyed on a universal level. Just don’t go into this looking for a look into the dangerous obsession of fandom, you will not get it here.
FIVE STARS (OUT OF FIVE)
I Used To Be Normal: A Boyband Fangirl Story is in limited release now.