[11 May 2012]
Somewhere inside Girl in Progress is a sweet but realistic coming-of-age movie about a teenage girl and her irresponsible mother. But this movie struggles to assert itself against a screenplay that centers on an astonishing, miscalculated contrivance. It’s rare to see a movie with such potential undermine itself so fully.
Before the plot kicks in, the core characters are compelling. Grace (Eva Mendes) had her daughter Ansiedad (Cierra Ramirez) at 17, and now scrapes by as a single mother, working as a waitress at a crab shack and as a maid for rich white families to pay the bills at Ansiedad’s private middle school in Seattle. This isn’t their home town: as Ansiedad explains in a class presentation early in the movie, she and her mother have moved around often, usually on Grace’s whims, following various bad relationships to their inevitable conclusions. Dr. Harford (Matthew Modine) fills the bad-relationship slot in Seattle. He’s married with children, but Grace remains smitten, hoping that he’ll fulfill his wishy-washy promise to leave his wife. Such lack of commitment brings out the teenage flakiness in Grace, who happily takes off with Dr. Harford and tells her daughter not to wait up.
These details, like the scene where Ansiedad bangs on her mother’s door and yells at her to turn down the music blasting from the other side, quickly establish the mother-daughter role reversal. It’s not subtle, but it is intriguing, and well played by newcomer Ramirez and Mendes, an actress with underrated comic skill. Their relationship is allowed some complexity: Grace is by turns insensitive, impulsive, and irresponsible, yet she’s a hard worker, and treats her daughter not with contempt but a kind of affectionate puzzlement (“How nerdy!” she exclaims when she sees Ansiedad’s chess medal). Grace may just barely avoid neglectful mother status not because she’s particularly responsible, but because Ansiedad is a good, smart kid—her daughter’s sweetness gives Grace some extra leeway.
Ansiedad turns out to be too smart for her own good. She listens intently to an English class lecture on coming-of-age stories from her teacher Ms. Armstrong (Patricia Arquette), a scene that would be uncomfortably on-the-nose even if it stood alone. But in this movie, Ansiedad decides that a coming-of-age story is exactly what she needs to escape her annoying home life, and attempts to engineer one for herself. With the help of her pudgy best friend Tavita (Rani Rodriguez), she creates an elaborately art-directed chart on her bedroom wall, tracking the various steps she will need to achieve adulthood. (Oddly, though we see Ansiedad conducting library research on coming-of-age tropes across cultures, these steps seem gleaned more from contemporary YA books and movies rather than a larger study of the form.)
Even for an adolescent girl’s misguided plan, this idea doesn’t make much sense. Ansiedad’s life with Grace motivates her to accelerate the growing up process, but if anything, that life already includes more adult responsibility than she prefers; their reversed roles couldn’t be clearer if they swapped bodies. It seems like she should pine for a more carefree childhood, not her own adult life. If screenwriter Hiram Martinez and director Patricia Riggen intend this contradiction as an ironic grace note, the irony gets lost amidst Ansiedad’s tortured logic.
Instead of further exploring the mother-daughter relationship, then, Girl in Progress proceeds with meta and cringeworthy scenes of Ansiedad acting self-consciously dorky so she can then self-consciously rebel and fall in with a bad crowd, and hopefully lose her virginity—all while self-consciously explaining what she’s doing to everyone in her life. Perhaps there is a version of this story that could reach this toxic level of self-consciousness and still work. But the screenplay is almost fascinatingly tone-deaf to human behavior. Early in the movie, Ansiedad must emphatically remind Grace: “I’m a teen!” Has any actual teenager in the past three decades ever self-identified as a “teen”?
More broadly, the movie’s treatment of middle-school girl politics is laughable (which is not to say comedic). At one point, when Grace needs intel on which bad girl she should befriend, Tavita nonsensically reports “hacking into” a popular girl’s Facebook account, presumably to find out who the popular girls most disdain and/or fear. But she offers no actual explanation that makes this strategy more effective than looking around the school cafeteria. It’s a small detail, but so unnecessary and bizarre that it calls attention to itself.
Grace’s story works a little better, or at least it’s less hobbled by the movie’s awkward hook. But it also meanders through repetitive scenes with Dr. Harford and the shy busboy Ansiedad nicknames Mission Impossible (Eugenio Derbez), obviously preferring him as a maybe-father figure to the smarmy doctor. Grace is less convinced, and one of the movie’s few charms as it goes along is its lack of interest in constructing a traditional love triangle with an obvious solution.
The rest of the Girl in Progress, though, doesn’t lack for obvious solutions. The coming-of-age-while-talking-about-coming-of-age narrative is too stupid to result in anything but lessons learned and understandings reached, further squandering the stronger moments between Mendes and Ramirez. Girl in Progress is well-meaning and good-hearted. It is also, in the end, a stunning miscalculation.