Director Patricia Riggen came to the attention of English-speaking audiences several years ago with the beautifully poignant “Las Misma Luna”. Her follow-up, “Lemonade Mouth” was a smash success for the ABC Family Channel. As if fated, she now helms GIRL IN PROGRESS, a film blending elements and emotions from each of these earlier projects into a coming-of-age story that at times touches the heart, makes you laugh, makes you cry, addresses social issues such as bullying, and will definitely open dialogue between mothers and daughters everywhere. And let’s not overlook the fact that it gives two incredible young actresses, Cierra Ramirez and Raini Rodriguez, a long overdue and well-deserved spotlight.
Still a girl herself, Grace became a mother at 17. Loving her daughter Ansiedad and wanting to be a good mother, she put her own dreams on hold to raise her daughter, but despite the passing years, she never let go of the 17 year old Grace. Moving from town-to-town and job-to-job whenever she got dumped by a guy, working multiple minimum wage jobs to keep a roof over their heads and food on the table, Grace, although loving Ansiedad, has become oblivious to her and the fact that she is now coming of age with her own questions, her own dreams, and no one but her best friend Tavita in whom to confide.
Although Grace is the breadwinner and mother, it is Ansiedad who is the adult, the responsible one. While Grace is out partying at night or sneaking around with this month’s flavor of the month married man, Ansiedad is keeping house, cooking, cleaning, taking Grace’s shoes off when she gets home after midnight and passes out on the bed, not to mention being a straight A student. And while it is obvious that Grace herself is a GIRL IN PROGRESS, so is Ansiedad.
Inspired by her English teacher and a coming-of-age class assignment, Ansiedad makes a big decision. She is going to map out and expedite her own coming-of-age. She already has the responsibilities of an adult. Why not be one? Calling on Tavita for assistance, Ansiedad embarks on a detailed campaign to adulthood, aided of course by 3D flow charts covering her bedroom wall. But without anyone to guide her or explain the process of growing up and consequences that come with certain actions, Ansiedad subconsciously maps out her mother’s life as her formula for success, and then turns out her best friend, gets in with the wrong crowds, rebels in school, starts drinking, planning sex - and all without gaining the one thing she craves more than anything, her mother’s love and attention.
Eva Mendes convincingly plays Grace as if a giddy teenager. She has no clue about anything. No sense of responsibility. Grace is more of a girl in progress than Ansiedad. A very different platform for her, Mendes is more than believable as the confused, childlike adult.
The real heavy lifting is done by Patricia Arquette. One of her best performances, as Ansiedad’s teacher Ms. Armstrong, she sets the dramatic tone, providing the information to help fill in the holes and adds a grounding maternal element that is welcoming and appreciated. Arquette’s emotional nuance gives Armstrong a welcome caring sense of responsibility and reality.
And then there’s Cierra Ramirez and Raini Rodriguez, as Ansiedad and Tavita, respectively. Well familiar with their ABC Family Channel work to date, watching both girls transition into these more mature roles laced with vulnerability is like watching butterflies emerge from cocoons. As Ansiedad, while Rodriguez takes on tones of Miranda Cosgrove’s preternaturally self-aware persona in “School of Rock”, she excels in vacillating between pubescent sweet teen and teen from hell. Soaring with emoting false bravado, she turns on a dime and pouts pretty damn good, too. And her chemistry with Riani Rodriguez is fantastic. But, more of the credit for that connection goes to Rodriguez. One of my favorite young actors, she is magical on screen. Her effervescence is infectious. The thoughtfulness she puts into understanding and knowing her character is beyond admirable. The care with which she treats Tavita is endearing. Rodriguez’ real gift, however, is the heart and charm she brings not only to Tavita, but to the film as a whole. In a very dramatic plot line of bullying, Rodriguez is heartbreaking as Tavita silently deals with not only that trauma, but the loss of her best friend. Like Arquette’s Armstrong, Rodriguez grounds the film in reality and moral conscience.
But there’s more to GIRL IN PROGRESS than just girls. There’s also Matthew Modine as Grace’s married love interest and Eugenio Derbez as “Mission Impossible”, an immigrant working with Grace at the crab shack, trying to better himself, and who loves her totally and completely from afar. (Grace of course is blind to Mission’s affections.) As for Modine, he brings nothing redeemable or likeable about Dr. Hartford. If Riggen was going for unlikeable in casting, she nailed it with Modine. At no time does one ever believe that any woman would be attracted to Modine's character. Selfish, snarky, a liar. Reprehensible on every level. On the flip side is Eugenio Derbez. With this great ability to wear his heart on his sleeve, making you cry one minute and smile the next, that’s exactly what Derbez brings to Mission. He is masterful at playing lost, downtrodden, broken and filled with heart, which is why it breaks my heart to see him under utilized and with such a weak plot line here. The ultimate development of the character goes against the core elements of the character. Another young actor to watch is Landon Liboiron. Always appealing, he could easily waltz his way into the Robert Pattinson, Daniel Radcliffe category if given the chance. While his role as Trevor (Ansiedad’s intended first kiss and first sexual experience in her battle plan) is small, Liboiron makes the most of it, showing different facets of emotion, with a heartfelt nicety that shines above the "bad boy" bravura.
Written by Hiram Martinez and directed by Patricia Riggen, both the script and overall film have a very “safe” and predictable feeling. They almost push the envelope, delving deeper into some big issues, but for whatever reason, pull back at crucial moments, removing a big screen feeling and compromising for the feel of an ABC Family type film (which is not a bad thing). This is actually one of the problems of the film. There are so many elements and steps of the "coming of age" battle plan that at certain points, everything becomes mechanized, convoluted and short shrifted. Characters like Derbez’ Mission Impossible are tossed in for a scene or two or as an after thought and then disappear; Tavita’s struggles with bullying and her weight are not explored further as a parallel to Ansiedad’s struggles. With a hot topic like bullying, it’s an injustice to toss it in, allude to aspects of it, but not fully follow through. That said, though, Riggen doesn’t compromise on the reality of the emotional thread and impact the characters have on each other and on the audience, something that will undoubtedly lead to open dialogue between mothers and daughters who see the film. If GIRL IN PROGRESS achieves nothing else, Riggen can be proud of the voice she gives to the mother-daughter dynamic.
Yes, there are life lessons and the story does get there, but the path is convoluted and could be reinforced more than it is. It’s easy to see that this is screenwriter Hiram Martinez' first feature. He has some great ideas but needs to flush out the particulars and hone in on story specifics, something that typically comes with experience. Interestingly, although some of the characters feel cliched, GIRL IN PROGRESS crosses ethnicity, zeroing in on the mother-daughter dynamic so common around the world, as opposed to making race or national origin an issue.
Creatively structured, there are compelling dream sequences that allow Checco Varese to showcase more of his abilities as a cinematographer. Shooting these sequences in B&W and being completely transformative into stereotypical dream characters for a “coming-of-age” girl, adds a level of fantasy-reality which will resonate with teens. Production design - and particularly the set decoration of Ansiedad's room - is true-to-life and with the bedroom, creative and age appropriate. The use of color differentiating Grace's room from Ansiedad's room, the use of lights and decor, go far in adding to the backstory in terms of Grace's roots and establishing the differences between her life and that of Ansiedad. Similarly, the class distinctions established with the homes of Tavita and Mission metaphorically show the paths Grace - and Ansiedad - can take in life, creating an almost visual tug of war.
A single mother trying to find her way in the world. A rebellious teen-aged daughter with more on her plate than she should have to handle alone. You embrace these women. You know these women. You root for these women. You hope for this mother and daughter to find their way. After all, at the end of the day, isn’t each of us really just a GIRL IN PROGRESS.
Grace - Eva Mendes
Ansiedad - Cierra Ramirez
Tavita - Raini Rodriguez
Mission Impossible - Eugenio Derbez
Dr. Hartford - Matthew Modine
Directed by Patricia Riggen. Written by Hiram Martinez.