'Girl in Progress': Inspired, Bumpy Journey
James Rocchi, Special to MSN Movies
Considering how few films even try to talk about the world of mothers and daughters -- and how even fewer among that small number do it well -- it's tempting to overlook some of the more glaring missteps in director Patricia Riggen's "Girl in Progress." The film follows high school student Ansiedad (Cierra Ramirez) as she rebels against her mom, Grace (Eva Mendes). But this is no general lashing out. After a few classes from English teacher Ms. Armstrong (Patricia Arquette) on the coming-of-age story and how it depicts children becoming adults, Ansiedad decides to write her own version of a coming-of-age story, meticulously mapping it out every step of the way and culminating in her leaving home for New York: "Being a kid is stupid ... and I'm moving on."
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The idea that a bright kid could try to fast-forward growing up by following the road map of a subgenre is interesting. (Ansiedad's posted-on-the-wall steps include "Show Potential," "Disappoint Authority," "Steal Money for Slutwear" and "Blast Death Metal Phase.") It's regrettable, though, that the script by Hiram Martinez constantly turns what should have been notes under the dialogue into the dialogue, with Ansiedad saying explicitly to the people around her exactly what exact things she needs to happen for her "story" to go forward. She explains to her friend Tavita (Raini Rodriguez), for one example, that if she's going to fall in with the bad girls at school, she'll have to abandon her old best friend at some point -- because that's how the stories always go.
But even as Ansiedad emerges as a screenwriter's creation -- a child so clever, self-composed and self-aware that she makes Diablo Cody's Juno look like a triumph of John Cassavetes-styled naturalism -- the overall tone and thrust of her complicated relationship with her mom comes through. Grace has put all thoughts of her dream of night school off: She left home at 17, pregnant, and works too many jobs to make ends meet, her free hours inadvisably filled by a dalliance with a married doctor (Matthew Modine, fine and smart in a few brief scenes). Ansiedad, desperate for her mom's attention in the worst way possible, behaves in the worst way possible to see if that will finally get her what she wants.
"Girl in Progress" creates a compelling picture of the real challenges facing Grace and Ansiedad, even if Grace is far more natural -- and, bluntly, far more likable -- than the manipulating, media-savvy Ansiedad. Ramirez gets the best lines (in a show-and-tell about her mom that starts the film, she explains, "My mom's name is Altagracia -- the white man can't pronounce that, so they call her 'Grace.'"), but it's Mendes who shines as the best actress in the piece -- harried and human, trying to be a mom and be happy, often failing at both.
Director Riggen's previous film "Under the Same Moon" ("La Misma Luna") also looked at parents and immigration and love, albeit a little more cinematically and melodramatically. At the same time, when "Girl in Progress" works, it's a thoughtful trip -- no matter how broad some of its missteps are -- along less-traveled paths, where a mother and daughter, out of love, each make and remake mistakes that keep them apart. A little less polish and sparkle on Ansiedad's dialogue would, ironically, make the film shine even more, but a film that looks at the truths and tales of so many different things -- growing up, maturing, moving on and holding on -- with such honesty and directness is a welcome change, even if it's less than a total success.
James Rocchi's writings on film have appeared at Cinematical.com, Netflix.com, AMCtv.com, IFC.com, SFGate.com and in Mother Jones magazine. He was also the on-air film critic for San Francisco's CBS-5 from 2006 to 2008. He now lives in Los Angeles, where every ending is a twist ending.