Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Progress Report

I don't know what's up with the month of May this year. Last year at this time, it seemed like there was no shortage of big screen targets awaiting my loving attention. Is it just my imagination, or does May 2012 seem to offer The Avengers and then everything else? Maybe it's just my love of all things Avengers, but sometimes I think I'd rather watch that global blockbuster again than bother with anything else on the horizon, especially when what I see includes Battleship, The Dictator and Chernobyl Diaries.

Still, I want to keep up appearances, and that's why I decided to catch Girl in Progress before its theater was given to something that will actually make money. Everything about GiP screamed indie award fodder, from the mostly-Latin cast and the indie director to the casting of unknown actress Cierra Ramirez and the obvious positioning of Eva Mendes in a role pandering to award voters.None of those should be considered BAD things, and while I'm sure I wasn't nearly the demographic the film was gearing towards (my broken chromosomes are a little too Caucasian for that), I couldn't help but wonder whether this particular title would stand above the rest of the independent films out there (I'm looking at you, LOL and Little Bit of Heaven), or if the whole thing would come crashing down in the opening monologue.

Not always apparent which one's supposed to be the mom.
That monologue actually sets it up nicely, introducing us to Ansiedad (Cierra Ramirez), whose disgust at the immature behavior of her mother, Grace (Eva Mendes), has finally driven her to a breaking point. Grace had gotten pregnant at an early age and was kicked out of the house by her own mother, and now she and Ansiedad been moving around the country, moving every time Grace breaks up with her local boyfriend. In Seattle, it is family man gynecologist Dr Harford (Matthew Modine) who has her affections. The intelligent and talented Ansiedad feels that her mother pays little to no attention to her, resolving to grow up as quickly as possible and leave home, before she ends up like Grace. To that end, she co-opts the main plot points of fictional coming-of-age stories to speed her own adulthood forward. Soon enough the journey gets rougher than expected, and the two women might not be so far apart as Ansiedad would wish.

"Okay, pretty-off! And... go!"
Let's be clear; Girl in Progress would be nothing if not for great acting, and fortunately the cast comes through with some of the best acting on display. Mendes is the best I've ever seen her, and while the role of a struggling single mom torn between her own need and the needs of la familia seems tailor-made for industry awards, Mendes manages to make far more than an empty gesture. Though perhaps not as emotionally-driven as Charlize Theron in Young Adult, Mendes' job is similar in that she must play a young woman who'd grown up very quickly, but never matured the point that most adults her age have reached. In that she does a wonderful job, though her young-ish looks certainly help sell that performance, meaning she's still relying on them to a point. It's a great performance by her, and hopefully the start of the next step in her career. Unless you've ever watched The Suite Life of Zac and Cody, you've likely never seen Ramirez, who takes the lead through her self-imposed tale of growth. Smart and clever, Ansiedad might not be a stretch for the talented Ramirez, but that puts her squarely in the same spot we all saw Lindsay Lohan flourish, circa Mean Girls. From here, Ramirez can do just about anything. The only complaints I have about Mendes and Ramirez center around the fact that they do almost nothing together. I realize that's the whole point of the movie (them having little to do with one another), but I'd have appreciated a little more setup than the overly simplistic opening sequence. Patricia Arquette, Modine and telenovela star Eugenio Derbez add layers of complexity to the tale, though none of them would be necessary to understand the story's main lesson.

Man, it's a good thing Modine has money...
It's a shame that the story itself doesn't do enough to keep up with the potentially interesting characters or premise. Ansiedad's journey is constantly shown to us ahead of time, and we generally know what is going to happen, but in an eye-rolling and annoyed way, not one that allows us to cheer for her. She never thinks that forcing her own growing-up phase might be similar to what got her mother kicked out of home so young in the first place, and her plan for faux-coming-of-age is so clearly outlined and planned that you just KNOW things aren't going to turn out as she predicts. You have to wonder if Girl in Progress wasn't at one point called Contrived: The Motion Picture, for how predictable the overall story is. Worse might be the cultural insignificance of the tale; director Patricia Riggen doesn't have a lot of experience making feature films, but I still expected her (being American-Mexican) and screenwriter Hiram Martinez to add their experiences of being Latin-American to a story that STARS Latin-Americans, and not just in the lead roles. When the most we see of that consists of a few lines in Spanish and one fiesta party, it's not enough. Girl in Progress is already an indie film; the least they could do was feature their own demographic a bit more.

You know what happens to best friends in movies like this, right?
The film's final act does get much better, but it's still not good enough to make the whole experience worth the trouble. Mendes' give a great - if not winning - performance, and that's the best thing about having seen Girl in Progress. Sadly, this is a film that knowingly and loudly takes on stereotypes, but doesn't do anything fresh or unique with them. It may seem like an odd comparison, but 21 Jump Street took a similar approach, but turned an apparent love of stereotypes aside, and worked wonders. If GiP had managed that, it might have been among the best of the year. Instead, its fate is to wallow at the bottom of the rankings, hoping that people will look more fondly at its promise than its delivery.

No comments: