Film Review: Very Good Girls

More of a meandering, misguided path than a road to hell, Naomi Foner’s directing debut, starring Dakota Fanning and Elizabeth Olsen as 18-year-old BFFs, is similarly filled with good intentions.

In Very Good Girls, the directing debut of screenwriter Naomi Foner, it’s that crucial year between high school and college for Lilly (Dakota Fanning) and Gerri (Elizabeth Olsen). Though opposites may attract, it’s still a bit of a stretch to see them as best, devoted friends. Lilly is a cool intellectual, Yale-bound. When she’s not wearing the uniform for her summer job as a tour-boat guide, she’s in plain blue garb, all matching those translucent, far-seeing blue eyes. Gerri is an effusive and bubbly type, trying different looks riffing a retro hippy style.

Foner’s script is based on the idea that the two, who seem totally bonded, have made a pact that they will lose their virginity before going off to college. A clever concept, but it gets muddled. Because when one does, she doesn’t tell the other. And when one doesn’t, she tells the other she has. For a movie—and filmmaker—touting the values of lasting female friendship and trust, you have to say: Huh?

It may be because they’re both in love with the same guy (though this didn’t happen on purpose), a kind of blue-collar Banksy type working as an ice cream vendor, but longing to go to Paris to be a photographer. He’s David, played by Boyd Holbrook, in a seductively sullen performance. But here, too, there are questionable, even risible, moments. How many young guys these days conveniently have a copy of Sylvia Plath’s poetry lying around, and use it as a seduction device? When Lilly reads Plath’s “Daddy” aloud, maybe we’re meant to flash on the fact that she’s just caught her doctor dad (an unflappable Clark Gregg) doing the nasty with a patient, and is a little angry with him. But she actually wants him back in the family fold.

Lilly’s family is from the buttoned-down upper middle class, and Gerri’s is a warm and fuzzy flashback to leftover radicals from the ’60s. Though we first see the girls stripping off at Brighton Beach as a goof, their comfortable homes, albeit in different styles, are in an affluent, bikeable section of what must be Brooklyn. The contrast between the families sort of works, but mainly makes you sad that a number of major actors are used for stock parts: Ellen Barkin as Lilly’s sometimes carping mom; Demi Moore briefly glimpsed as Gerri’s earth mother; and a rather enjoyable Richard Dreyfuss as a hearty old lefty, sending himself up a bit. Some filmgoers may think of Foner’s Oscar-nominated script for Sidney Lumet’s Running on Empty about ’60s radicals, but for this viewer the nostalgia was for the subtleties of Foner’s Losing Isaiah, with Jessica Lange and Halle Berry deftly, delicately shading the definitions of family and motherhood.

Very Good Girls is something of a family affair in its Central Casting: Foner’s real-life son-in-law, Peter Sarsgaard, is plugged in as Lilly’s boss who wants to boff her, yet sensitively (this we can believe) backs off when he has to. Music by Jenny Lewis is perhaps used for trendy topicality, but she’s also the onetime girlfriend of Foner’s son, Jake Gyllenhaal.

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