FILM REVIEW: GIRL IN PROGRESS is sweet and just a tad spicy

From Latino studio, Pantelion Films, Girl in Progress stars Eva Mendes as Grace, an immature and impetuous single working mother who faces off with her equally impetuous but way more mature, scholarly teenaged daughter named Ansiedad.  Like a Freaky Friday where adult and child roles are reversed to comedic and lesson-learning effect, but without the body switch, Girl In Progress is an ebullient, if a bit twee, meta-fable set to capitalize on its May 11th, Mother’s Day weekend release.

nada de chemistry between these two
Introducing Cierra Ramirez from Houston!

When not scrapping for tips waiting tables at a busy Crab shack to pay the bills, Grace wastes her time hooking up with a bored and married doctor (Matthew Modine) much to the loud disappointment of Ansiedad. Ansiedad (a real Dominican name that means anxiety), a doll face who wears Clueless inspired outfits, does all the chores around the house and despises having to be the responsible one in the house while her mother goes out and flip flops on going to night school.  Grace is preoccupied with paying the bills, but also oblivious to her daughter’s needs. Determined to leave her mom behind and start her adult life, Anna, as she anglicizes her name, is inspired in lit class by Ms. Armstrong (Patricia Arquette who phones it in) to fast forward her coming of age.  With the help of her best friend Tavita, Anna methodically plots out key pit stops on the way to adulthood taking a page from various coming of age classics like The Catcher In the Rye, and ever thorough, reviews a chrysalis diagram showing the process of cocoon into butterfly transformation. With self imposed urgency, Anna sets up and tackles her own passage of rites, including stealing money for a gothic bad girl makeover, making friends with the Mean Girls, dumping her loyal friend, up to scheduling the de-blossoming of her virginity with Mr. Popularity at an upcoming party to mark the final stage into womanhood.  Distracted by her job, her breakup with Mr. Doctor and the fact she’s short money for bills, Grace remains unaware of what her daughter’s antics are trying to tell her.

Girl In Progress is directed by Patricia Riggen, director of the 2007 Sundance breakout film, La Misma Luna.  Her short film Lindo y Querido which was in the Revolucion anthology strongly captures the first generation Mexican American experience for me.  Riggen imbues emotion and light quirky humor to the script written by Hiram Martinez, a Dominican New Yorker who made the 2005 micro-budget indie comedy, Four Dead Batteries. The dynamic of the reverse mother daughter roles reveals itself in very deliberate dialogue between Grace and Anna, both who struggle to act their age. Anchored in its PG-13 safe level of funny zingers and slight sexual undertones the film is nicely embedded in popcorn movie-land.  After all, nuclear families are not any better than single parent families and affairs with married men are no longer taboo.  The crux of the story lies in its empathetic rendering of the tenuous and complicated relationships of mothers and daughters.  Eva Mendes does what she does best and drips sensuality with her short hemmed waitress uniform and demonstrates more comic than dramatic chops.  Oddly enough, there is zero chemistry with Modine, which rejects any credibility to their affair. Nobody can blame a girl for having poor taste in men, but it does show Grace has some juvenile and irresponsible streaks to shed herself.

Played with relish by young newcomer Cierra Ramirez, Anna’s naive insistence that she can induce her transformation seems to belie her intellect, but at the same time reveals her internal desire to be the little girl to her mom. It’s part of the film’s concept that she follows the coming of age formula, a Meta conceit, the proceedings manage to keep an energetic pace.  Still, the over-familiarity of each prerequisite High School- nerd-goes-bad sequence begs for something fresh and authentic in this canon.

In thinking about the current Latino identity culture change that says “Hispanics are the Mainstream”, I feel like we are saying that the stories will remain the same (universal) but the characters might look, smell and sound Latino. In Girl In Progress for instance, we have the unique Spanish language Dominican names, Grace’s sideways cursing and swearing to the holy saints (swearing in Spanish is more expressive and fun than in English) and of course the music.  As Grace gets ready for her date, she dances to Sabor A Mi by Edie Gorme y los Panchos in her negligee looking super sultry.

Perhaps the only time the film portrays an unequivocal Latino identity is when Grace escapes from the suburban mainstream and accompanies her co-worker played by Eugenio Derbez in a secondary role that is more plot vehicle than anything, to his aunt’s cramped and colorful apartment fiesta.  There, Grace lets loose and dances to Mexican band singer Espinoza Paz.  The Latino experience is driven home by the reference to the vastly different and crude existence of his immigrant working lifestyle when he points to a couch he calls home.

I can’t help compare Girl in Progress with BABYGIRL, a film by Irish filmmaker Macdallaly Varela that just premiered at the Tribeca Film Festival.  Babygirl has the same dynamic except in this raw, Puerto Rican Bronx set world, the teen daughter competes with her mother for the attention of a smooth talking papi chulo.  The budding lust and romantic triangle combined with boriqua street vernacular give it much more of a base in reality and credibility.  Both films deal with young mamas who have more of a friendship than a traditional mother-daughter relationship.  Babygirl really goes there and unravels.  Girl In Progress neatly contrives its denouement.

The reason I bring it up is to make the point that the problem with practicing this hispanics are the mainstream trend.   I believe there’s more value in creating more distinctly personal Latino stories that are informed by the Latino experience instead of stories with characters that just happen to be Latinos.  This goes against the desire and moneymaking business of appealing to the widest scale possible. You can still taste the hint of spice in the mainstream of hispanic culture, but its so carefully measured to ensure that middle america can tolerate it.

All that aside, Girl In Progress is a tender, warm and pleasingly accessible Hollywood film that works on the surface and sufficiently carries out its cute tagline, “A Tale of Acting Up, Acting Out and Acting your Age.”

Watch trailer here


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