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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As a single white male without any children living in Los Angeles, I may not be the best person to evaluate a coming of age story centering on a Latina mother / daughter pair living in Seattle, but I'll do my best to review director Patricia Riggen's new film Girl in Progress all the same.

We are first introduced to the daughter of the pair, Ansiedad, played by newcomer Cierra Ramirez. Not far into her teens, Ansiedad is generally wise beyond her years. She's not so much world-weary is she is world-yearning. She is quite done with childhood and would like to skip ahead as soon as possible. Her mother Grace (Eva Mendes) on the other hand doesn't seem to be aware that her teenage years ever ended. She never finished high school, has continually pushed back night school, refuses to settle down, and displays a breathtaking propensity to ignore her daughter in favor of flings with her married boyfriend (played by Mathew Modine, who impressively manages to portray a man both dashing and wholly unappealing).

So we have two separate yet intertwined coming of age stories: The teenager Ansiedad who is trying to force her adulthood into being, and the 30-something Grace, who must finally put away childish things and be a mother to her daughter.

The later of the two is thoroughly well done. Grace's story is believable and well played throughout. Ansiedad's, on the other hand, has some problems, which is unfortunate, considering it is the focus of the film.

Ansiedad's journey begins when she starts covering coming of age stories in school. She sees the coming of age process as a ticket out of childhood, and goes off the deep end with an almost Asperger's level of focus and devotion. She pours over a multitude of stories and articles on the subject, compiles a list of common story points, and from that generates a massive construction paper flow-chart in her bedroom that proscribes a pathway out of childhood. It includes items like “Fall In With the Wrong Crowd,” “Betray Best Friend,” and “Mother Fails to Notice.” She earnestly believes that filling in this checklist will give her the magic ingredient of “maturity” that she feels such a need of.

This quixotic set up could work in another film, but doesn't hit the right notes here. The rest of the movie is too well grounded in reality, and Ansiedad is too otherwise down to earth for her quest to feel quite real. At times, it is played up as part of the movie's schtick, such as when she demands a first kiss of the “bad boy” she has targeted to “deflower” her, stipulating that the kiss has to be awkward and she has to hate it. At other times, it's used to create major plot points, such as when she betrays her best friend to get in with her requisite “bad crowd.” In both cases, the characters seem to be moving through a world one or two steps removed from reality compared to the rest of the film.

This doesn't cast a blight on the film or anything; It's just that the change in tone that occurs each time we see Ansiedad further her quest ensures that we are over and over reminded that she is a character on a screen, not a person with a story.

Even with this foible, Girl in Progress is a film more than worth its celluloid. Mendes and Ramirez create a great off kilter mother / daughter pair. There's a great roster of supporting characters as well. Besides Mathew Modine's adulterous Dr. Hartford, Patricia Arquette portrays the kind of teacher you wish more young people had in their lives. Russell Peters gives a good turn as Grace's unforgiving, subtly bitter workaholic boss. As Grace's almost but not quite second love interest, Eugenio Derbez plays both a great comic relief character in his own right and a provides a further example of the kind of things Grace's extended childhood has shut away.

Another thing the film does quite well is keep the two plot lines going. In too many movies with two or more plot lines, the different stories wind up competing with each other more than complementing one another. Grace and Ansiedad's stories on the other hand work together quite well. Inconsistencies in tone aside, one flows into the other, which in turn inspires the first. True to their status as mother and daughter, neither Grace or Ansiedad's stories could exist without the other.

Overall, Girl in Progress is a good film with some flaws. It spins a strong tail about growing up, which doesn't necessarily come hand in hand with growing older, while providing a few laughs along the way.

A coming of age story about a girl obsessed about coming of age stories because her mom refuses to come of age. Seriously, the self-referentialism alone is worth the price of admission.

Girl Progress opens May 11th in select theaters.