Review of Girl in Progress

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Eva Mendes plays Grace, a single mom whose so busy juggling work, bills, and her married boyfriend (played by Matthew Modine) to give her daughter Ansiedad the attention she desperately needs. When Ansiedad’s English teacher, Ms. Armstrong (Patricia Arquette), introduces her students to classic coming-of-age stories, Ansiedad is inspired to skip adolescence and jump-start her life without mom.
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Movie Review: "Girl in Progress"

--Rating: PG-13
Length: 90 minutes
Release Date: May 11, 2012
Directed by: Patricia Riggen
Genre: Comedy and Drama

"Girl in Progress" follows a young girl as she struggles to come of age in the presence of a mother who hasn't yet grown up herself. Starring Eva Mendes, Cierra Ramirez and Patricia Arquette, the movie is part teenage comedy, part family drama.

The story opens on Ansiedad (Ramirez), who prefers to be called Ann-a teenager who is struggling to find herself in the confusing world of high school. Her flighty mother, Grace (Mendes), who never graduated from high school, doesn't help matters; she hasn't figured out how to be an adult and, although well intentioned, doesn't quite understand how to help her belligerent daughter. Both women are trying to find their way in the world, and the results are chaotic and hilarious.

In response to her emotional turmoil and lack of conventional parenting, Ann begins a study of the best coming-of-age stories she can find. She makes a list of things she should achieve or experience on the way to becoming an adult, from getting rid of an unpopular best friend to having an uncomfortable first kiss. As unlikely as it seems, Ann works her way through the list-sometimes with unbearable cruelty-in her quest to get through high school.

The movie pokes fun at stereotypical plot devices that are commonly aimed at teenage girls in popular movies and books. In a surprisingly bold move, it lists them and proceeds to shoot down each item, one by one. Writer Hiram Martinez takes pleasure in surprising viewers with several unexpected conclusions to familiar plot devices. In doing so, he ensures that the audience will stay alert when the story starts to drag.

Mendes shines as the flighty and immature Grace. Directionless and searching, she is nothing but sweet in her fumbles. Although the character does not have the chance to develop much over the course of the movie, she provides balance for the darker aspects of the film.

Chief among these darker aspects is Ann herself. Although Ramirez has significant acting chops and no shortage of teenage emotion, the character she plays is almost entirely unlikable at times. Viewers may be shocked at the coldness with which she carries out her list of goals, particularly when she publicly humiliates a friend. Fortunately, her character ultimately softens. Ramirez handles her character's ups and downs with grace and a skill beyond her years.

The supporting cast has its ups and downs, but provides a sturdy foundation. Patricia Arquette is particularly effective as Ann's teacher, who serves as the driving force for the main storyline. Her unique energy provides a breath of fresh air in "Girl in Progress," and the role gives the talented actress the chance to shine. Matthew Modine plays Grace's unlikely lover, a married man who is torn between his wife and his lover. Although neither character is developed adequately, they provide an interesting break from the mother-daughter dynamic that is the main focus of the film.

"Girl in Progress" suffers from an unlikely plot and other shortcomings. The movie reflects the nature of director Patricia Riggen's career. Riggen, who has directed a range of films, from small, independent movies to large Disney channel spectaculars, seems to be unable to decide which direction she wants to go with "Girl in Progress." At times, the movie seems to be a dramatic coming-of-age film; in other moments, it shifts focus to the plight of a mother raising a child on her own.

Overall, "Girl in Progress" is refreshingly honest. It doesn't impart judgment on its characters, but it doesn't sugarcoat their struggles. Grace and Ann are Mexican Americans, and they deal with economic problems and low wages. The film does not try to hide their problems, nor does it treat them with condescension or kid gloves. Viewers feel like they are seeing the reality for the characters, even when it is not pretty or comfortable. The same holds true when it comes to dealing with the plight of teenage girls who are struggling to fit in.

While "Girl in Progress" has shortcomings when it comes to plot and the clarity of the story, it makes up for them in pure spirit. The leading actresses bring an admirable sweetness and genuine love to their roles, making it easier to believe in the story. Even in its looser moments, Mendes and Ramirez carry it through with aplomb. The result is an entertaining, genuinely enjoyable film.

Rating: 3 out of 5 stars