GROUP

NR
Reviews

Set in Olympia, Washington, in a storefront which has a flyer taped to its window reading "Queer-friendly sliding scale downtown," the film offers a pretty typical cross-section of local personalities, with a liberal dose of gay in the mix. There's a somewhat archaic feel to the entire project, a throwback to the Me Decade of the '70s, when such groups were common and everyone seemed to have a desperate need to "deal with feelings." (What the hell happened?) The fact that this is not a documentary but a fictional conceit performed by actors definitely raises another big question. And that is, basically, "Why?"

Freeman uses split screens (six of them) to garner a range of reactions and emotions from the participants. This is at times effective, at others clueless, especially when she uses two of them to show the same woman. Group is technically very smooth, but, for all its comprehensiveness and length, not really engaging and more than a little formulaic. While disparate in a cosmetic sense, the women are actually not really that different from one another. They seem to have all gone to the same Method-y acting school, and a few people of color would have been more than welcome here.

If any, Pipi (Nomy Lamm), a one-legged, queer punk, could be called the film's "star," with her handicapped status, blue hair and determinedly outlaw attitude. She gets the film's biggest laugh when she mentions her horror of sex with any man with a "real flesh penis." She has her run-ins with Clansey (Tony Wilkerson), the devout Christian, and Grace (Carrie Brownstein), a hypochondriac, who wants to remain emotionally removed. Pipi has more backstory than any three of the others, what with losing her leg to cancer, being raped at an early age by hospital employees, and finding redemption as a peer counselor to other cancer victims. (You can almost hear Thelma Ritter, in All About Eve, muttering, "Everything but the bloodhounds snappin' at her rear end.") And she saves her big emotional guns for a climactic crying jag, in which she confides the fact that she has found a possibly cancerous cyst on her body and must go to the doctor. Here, Lamm runs the gamut of emotions, but it actually comes off as nothing so much as acting.

The group is run by Ruby Martin, an actual therapist, who is herself a stereotypical model of calm and understanding. (She's big on the consoling hug.) Freeman tries to break things up with between-group session footage of the women in "real life" (waiting for the bus, taking aggressions out on a punching bag, just hanging on the street, and, of course, sipping the ubiquitous java without which the American Northwest would probably resemble a coma ward). Again, the activities shown are less than mesmerizing. The soundtrack is awash with what could be humorously referred to as "vagina music," by the likes of The Aislers Set, Mirah, Sara Dougher and Sleater-Kinney.

The similarly titled film The Group, made in 1966 by Sidney Lumet, was an adaptation of Mary McCarthy's best-seller. For all of its Hollywood gloss and melodramatic hijinks, it presented a far more accurate investigation of the female psyche than anything seen here. (Plus, it had a radiant young Candice Bergen, in her screen debut, playing an aristocratic lesbian named Lakey.)