Film Review: Girl in Progress

Coming-of-age tale has a lot of appealing elements which help counteract its weaknesses.

Thirteen-year-old Ansiedad (Cierra Ramirez) not only hates her name, she also hates her mom, Grace (Eva Mendes), a gorgeous waitress who has a history of picking the wrong man, including Ansiedad’s unknown father and her current beau, a married gynecologist, Dr. Hartford (Matthew Modine). Ansiedad pours her angst into her school project, taking its evolution theme literally, as she tries to grow up in a hurry by acting out the noxious rebel instead of the chess-playing model student she’s been, falling in with the popular girls at her school and losing her virginity.

Girl in Progress is a scruffily likeable coming-of-age tale, directed and written with verve and savory comic observation by Patricia Riggen and Hiram Martinez, respectively. Although many of the plot elements are familiar from other teen-based movies, the Seattle setting and Latina flavor here infuse it with a watchable freshness. One just wishes more care had gone into the film’s later sequences, which devolve into formulaic predictability as they tie up the various story strands. Much of the dialogue has a bracing snap to it, as when a hostile Ansiedad asks the doctor, “How’s your wife?” only to be met with an even more cutting “How’s your father?” Sometimes, however, Martinez gets a little too glib, too self-consciously sitcom clever, as when Ansiedad tells her exasperated teacher (Patricia Arquette), “I just need someone to help me realize my potential and watch helplessly as I throw it all away.” Riggen does herself no favors by throwing whiny, distracting pop songs on the soundtrack under certain crucially emotional scenes.

Ramirez is a lovely young thing, and energetically seizes upon all of her character’s varied moods and fantasies. Mendes is radiantly likeable in her strongest screen outing to date (and what a relief it must be for her not to have to pout and sizzle in a real role for a change). Indeed, the actress is so engaging that one tends to side with her over her ragingly hormonal daughter: Grace seems like a whole lot of fun, really, so what’s this brat whining on about anyway? Arquette brings some authority to her small role, but Modine, typecast by now as an egocentric yuppie, doesn’t show anything much new. Raini Rodriguez is immensely appealing as Ansiedad’s chubby best friend, who gets kicked to the curb in the all-important interests of high-school popularity.