In 1992, Ruth Leitman set out with a Super 8 camera and a small all-woman film crew to document the daily life of young teenagers and 20-somethings in Wildwood, New Jersey. Filmed during the twilight of the Reagan/Bush era, Leitman captures a fascinating snapshot of what she describes as “the last great American blue-collar seaside carnival town”, the sort of boardwalk community on the Jersey Shore that has been in terminal decline; battered by the ghost of Hurricane Sandy and the increasing drug abuse and economic deprivation that is eroding American working class life everywhere else.
Wildwood serves as sort of a cultural Mecca for cheap thrills and escapism for the average Tristate area resident and the bulk of Wildwood, NJ is served through intimate and unobtrusive interviews with these working class subjects, mostly young women, who relay varying stories about scrapping-by poverty, regrettably losing your virginity, shitty body image, violence, deadbeat parents, fights, and a powerful sense of friendship with each other. Every summer they come to the beach resort, sometimes to flee abusive home lives or in other cases to flee boredom, where there are thrills and a therapeutic freedom from responsibility in summer flings, carnival rides, beach outings, and the sort of transitory nightlife that was being phased out of Las Vegas at around the same point in time. The town offers the comfort of anonymity and a sense of fleetingness that the visitors speak of admirably, where their summer memories of boys and fun in the sun can be left behind as they came, until perhaps they finally return to bring their own children to the resort a decade or two down the line.
A woman who dresses as a vampire for the carnival’s haunted house talks about how to make a good chunk of change working 13 or 14 hours a day. One awkward but earnest teenager shares what seems like a tall tale about putting another girl in the hospital. A guy sheepishly listens to his new summer fling drunkenly and enthusiastically ramble about Wildwood, repeating the phrase “it’s different, every night” over and over again. There are bad 80s haircuts, exaggerated Jersey accents, and religious adults that intone about the dark temptations that lurk everywhere for the girls on the boardwalk. Interviewees share dreams and ambitions about becoming a doctor, a nutritionist, a psychologist, an airline stewardess, or in the case of two go-go dancers, simply doing whatever you need to do to make a buck.
The movie’s subjects have an unscripted awkwardness and matter-of-fact way of speaking that sometimes lends itself to amusement but Leitman does not film them so they can be simply gawked at as period pieces, like in something such as in Heavy Metal Parking Lot. There is a lot empathetic intoning in each interview about struggling to get by, hating how the world makes you feel about your body, avoiding men who don’t respect you, and shouldering each others burdens and a scrappy solidarity that makes Wildwood, NJ in all its low-rent New Jersey griminess, a thematic meditation on the friendship and experiences between working class women.