Can a single tone-deaf, wince-inducing joke, even one that’s repeated, kill a movie? No. Not a good film. But a marginal one that has trouble finding its tone? Let’s just say wisecracks about spouse abuse don’t help.
“Girl in Progress” is a coming-of-age story about a smart and smart alecky teen (newcomer Cierra Ramirez) who researches “coming-of-age/rites-of-passage” stories and decides she’ll speed up the process of growing up. All to escape her frazzled, disorganized and self-absorbed mom (Eva Mendes).
Grace, the mom, didn’t do her daughter any favors naming her Ansiedad. It means “anxiety.” So even though the girl has grown up very smart — she loves multi-media presentations — she’s inclined to use them to mock her too-sexy/too-scatterbrained mom. Who dropped out of high school. Who didn’t marry and doesn’t even know who her dad was. Who makes lousy choices in boyfriends and has limited career prospects. Who never follows through on any big plans to get them out of their lower class place in life.
So Ansiedad, inspired by learning about coming-of-age stories from her English teacher (Patricia Arquette), and conferring with her plump social-outcast pal Tavita (Raini Rodriguez), develops a checklist that seems to have come from the teen films of John Hughes. Become a star at something intellectual and nerdy (chess), then turn your back on it. Inspire, and then disappoint a teacher who “sees something special in you.” Fall in with the “bad girls.” Ditch your socially awkward best friend.
And lose your virginity, preferably to a “bad boy.”
These steps are meant to be played for laughs. But young Ms. Ramirez and her co-stars can’t find the funny in them.
Mendes, sexy as ever, never quite rises to the level of neglect that would have made Grace funny, or at least somebody we could root against.
The milieu and overarching themes –don’t try to grow up too fast, be true to your true friends, smart people should make smart choices — work. It’s set in Seattle, the latest town Grace has dragged them to. Ansiedad is on scholarship at a high-class private school. while mom works in the Crab Shack, sneaks around with a married gynecologist (Matthew Modine) and avoids the attentions of the restaurant busboy Ansiedad is teaching to write and has nicknamed “Mission: Impossible.”
The boss of the joint (Russell Peters) is meant to be a tactless-clueless jerk. But the first time he cracks about why he can’t rely on one waitress because she gets “slapped around at home,” is one time too many. I can’t tell you how unfunny that is. Surely veteran TV director Patricia Riggen realized that and could have demanded something else from tin-eared screenwriter Hiram Martinez. Maybe Hiram should volunteer at a battered woman’s shelter, find a few more laughs there.
If you know coming-of-age stories, you know what’s coming, and the third act is far more satisfying than the first two. But what could have been a winning, Latin-flavored “Stella Dallas,” that classic story of a daughter ashamed of her mother (not always with good reason), takes too long to find the right tone, too long between laughs and too long to show any real progress in these two girls –one allegedly an adult — in the process of growing up.
MPAA Rating:PG-13 for mature thematic elements, sexual content including crude references, and drinking – all involving teens
Cast: Eva Mendes, Cierra Ramirez, Patricia Arquette, Matthew Modine
Credits: Directed by Patricia Riggen, written by Hiram Martinez, a Pantelion/Lionsgate release.
Running time: 1:31