NEW WATERFORD GIRLNR
Mooney Pottie (Liane Balaban) is tired of New Waterford. A precocious misfit in a sea of complacency, her sights are higher, her ideas bigger, than the provincial limitations of her surroundings. 'Ask me anything,' she boldly demands, brimming with urbane knowledge that's wasted on the narrow-minded inhabitants of this one-horse town. An isolated Catholic mining community based in Cape Breton, New Waterford is a place where fervid local pride is as widespread as teenage pregnancy, and the landscape of steep cliffs and endless sea is as magnificent as it is bleak. Clearly, this somewhat desolate countryside, awash in wet blues and grays, is no place for the urban savvy and boundless dreams of 15-year-old Mooney.
Allan Moyle, director of Pump Up the Volume (1990), brings us another film about a compelling young outsider, this time penned by comedy writer Tricia Fish ('Kids in the Hall'). A semi-autobiographical account of Fish's adolescence in this bone-chilling part of Canada in the 1970s, New Waterford Girl follows the maladjusted Mooney in her dogged efforts to leave her small hometown behind.
The name 'Mooney' is certainly appropriate, given the starry, distant look that constantly drifts into her eyes. It seems Mooney would like nothing more than to crawl into one of her books and live there for a while (away from the humdrum world of mashed potatoes and family dinners). Perfectly inhabited by Balaban, Mooney is breathtaking-awkward and gangly in her bulky sweaters and draping skirts, but captivatingly beautiful. If Johnny Depp and Winona Ryder had a lovechild during their lengthy courtship years ago, she would undoubtedly look like Balaban-lank, moody, and with all the requisite pouts and postures, she is clearly the heir apparent of outsider chic.
These attributes, combined with Mooney's distinctive brand of cerebral quirkiness, are not lost on her English teacher, Cecil Sweeny (Andrew McCarthy). An outsider in his own right, Sweeny is clearly enamored of his shining pupil, and manages to secure a scholarship for Mooney at an art school in New York. However, Mooney's parents are not keen on sending their little girl away to an urban hotbed of sin. For them, Mooney's introversion, her sarcasm, and her cosmopolitan aspirations are clearly the product of mental illness. It appears that in New Waterford, too much ambition (or perceived maladjustment) will earn you a prescription for tranquilizers.
But all is not lost. Though Mooney would rather spend her time simmering alone in her own juices, she begrudgingly befriends her brassy new neighbor; a Bronx native named Lou (Tara Spencer-Nairn). The daughter of a recently incarcerated boxer, Lou has a devastating uppercut-a talent that becomes her key to acceptance among the otherwise exclusive, even hostile, townspeople. With Lou-who's endlessly patient with Mooney's bouts of anti-social melodrama-Mooney hatches a harebrained scheme to leave town. Given that the only girls who leave New Waterford are those who 'get into trouble' (become pregnant), Mooney attempts to earn herself an outgoing train ticket.
As a film about the trials of adolescence, New Waterford Girl is pretty charming. Though essentially carried by Balaban's winning presence, the screenplay has a clever irreverence, and an effective evocation of time and place (blue eyeliner and female mullet haircuts are a nice touch). But at times, Mooney's lofty petulance is left without a hook to hang on-much time is spent on close-ups of Balaban acting eccentric or annoyed without much provocation. Promising characters like Lou and Sweeny are given uneven play, momentarily important and then left as scenery, and the plot seems to move forward almost arbitrarily, picking up scant fuel from Mooney's fake promiscuity and Lou's able punching. It is especially unfortunate that so little is done with Mooney's relationship with Sweeny; her imperviousness to his subtle advances seems not only uninteresting, but also unrealistic. The disparity between Mooney and your typical thoughtful adolescent is pretty big-she is intelligent without being self-conscious, and alienated without being insecure. Illustrating very little affection for others until the film's end (consequently making that moment feel unearned), she simply seems to be an idealized version of what we all wish we were like at that age. However, the film manages to remain engaging, because even if most of the film is about Mooney just being moody, it certainly looks good on her.