This movie kind of pissed me off because it put me in a bind that I often find myself in: Story about a teenage girl – awesome! And her relationship with her single, working mom – yes! Directed by a woman – boom! Unfortunately, just like my last relationship, everything looks great on paper but once you’re in it you realize it’s just a big ol’ mess.
This is the story of Aniesdad (Cierra Ramirez) a 15 year old girl and the only child of Grace (Eva Mendes). Grace is a self-absorbed waitress who favors time with a married man (Matthew Modine) over spending time with her daughter – or paying bills, grocery shopping, doing laundry. In order to detach from her mother completely, Aniesdad is trying to execute her own initiation into adulthood and does so by staging her own coming of age story through culturally significant yet destructive rites of passage.
Ramirez is a refreshing newcomer whose detachment from/desire for her mother’s love is one of the only genuine elements of this film. The actress herself is an actual teenager so maybe this has something to do with the honesty behind her performance. Girl also follows the traditional pattern in young adult female driven stories of the protagonist being disconnected, or somehow estranged, from her mother. While I recognize that struggling against authority and, more or less, hating your Mom is part of the process of being a teenager, I wish there were more films with positive Mom characters. Mom’s who daughters look up to. Mom’s whom daughters admire, despite their flaws. Mom’s who become better because of their relationship to their children. Save for her 5-minute makeover at the end of the film (which I totally didn’t buy!), Grace is continually selfish and unlikable. Mendes is usually someone I like to watch but here her charm reads as falseness and Grace remains unsympathetic and distant. Writer Hiram Martinez’s attempts to give her some sense of humanity through her struggles at work and fleeting moments of motherly affection don’t translate. This is a film about a struggling single mom the way Bad Teacher was a film about a struggling high school teacher. Not really. At all. Moments like these make me wonder if it is possible for men to write honest female characters. It doesn’t happen often and certainly didn’t here.
Something I found to be really careless about the film was its attitude towards dating violence. Rated PG-13, and billed as a Comedy/Drama, the target audience for this film is clearly high school girls. Considering that approximately 1 in 5 female high school students report being physically and/or sexually abused by a dating partner, and these numbers are even higher in Latina populations, I think Martinez could’ve opted out of lines like “Becky can’t come to work; she had a fight with a flight of stairs” when referring to one of the waitresses at the restaurant where Grace works. Certainly, director Patricia Riggin could’ve made a different choice. More disturbing than the careless dialogue are the interactions between Tavita (Raini Rodriguez), Aniesdad’s best friend, and the boy who tells her “I’m not your boyfriend no matter what we do in your basement.” He shoves her at one point and grabs Aniesdad at another. It happens so casually and it is just accepted by both the characters. If it’s a subversive choice by the filmmakers, I missed. I just found it upsetting.
Girl In Progress does manage to usurp the tradition of providing young female characters with male role models. Aniesdad seeks guidance from her English teacher; a surprising appearance by Patricia Arquette and Grace is treated with dignity by the wife of the man with whom she’s having an affair. The woman politely and privately lets her know she’s fired yet still acts with empathy towards Aniesdad. This was a refreshing choice even if it was totally unbelievable that Matthew Modine, his character or the real him, would ever end up with either of these women. And, even though there was very little attention given to heritage or cultural experiences, it was nice to watch a film with some non-white faces.
Overall, the film was much more mature than the creators were prepared for. It raises the question of some serious issues facing teenagers that can affect the type of adults they become. The film was released on Mother’s Day and I only hope that the mothers who saw this film with their daughters are also having conversations about the realities of coming of age. Telling them that you can’t create or even choose the experiences that make you an adult; it happens when you least expect it and in ways that are harsh, scary, and beautiful. I hope those same mothers, unlike Grace, are allowing their daughters to see their vulnerabilities and their strengths because as we grown-ups know, this life isn’t so easy. And the line between childhood and adulthood isn’t so clearly defined.
Cross posted at LoveYALit