All About My Mother, by David Bax
With the recent release of – and subsequent geek cacophony about – Drew Goddard’s The Cabin in the Woods, there’s been a lot of talk in film circles about “genre deconstruction.” In case you’re not up to date on your meta subgenres, this refers to films that aren’t quite spoofs but are legitimate entries in their genres while also commenting on them in a postmodern fashion. For some reason, horror has been the most explored form, with the aforementioned Cabin being preceded by 2006’s Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon and 1996’s Scream, a pioneer of the trend. The approach has been attempted in other styles, as well, such as the well-intentioned but mostly unsuccessful Last Action Hero from 1993. Thus far, it doesn’t appear that the deconstruction torch has passed over the well-worn fabric of the coming-of-age story. Patricia Riggen’s Girl in Progress sets out to change that and, technically, it does. Just not in the form of a good movie.
Cierra Ramirez plays Ansiedad, the only child of a single mother named Grace (Eva Mendes). Grace is a pretty terrible role model but Ansiedad, to her credit, recognizes that. A school lesson on the coming-of-age tale – delivered by teacher Ms. Armstrong (Patricia Arquette) – convinces our young heroine that what she needs in order to get away from her mom is to step into adulthood. Armed with movie and literature tropes, she believes she can force that fateful move by recreating all the right circumstances. Her plan is intricate but it consists mainly of rebelling, falling in with a bad crowd, then losing her virginity and her innocence with it.
Ramirez deftly handles the dialogue, of which there is much, but it would be difficult to say if she possesses the chops to get deeper into a character for the simple reason that this particular character has no real depth. She’s hyper-verbal and jaded in a Juno way except that this film is trying so hard, it makes Juno seem like pure naturalism.
Mendes, on the other hand, is the film’s main problem. The fault lies not only with the performance she gives – though it is an exasperatingly slight and facile one – but also with Riggen’s refusal to commit to Grace’s toxic personality. Like Cesar Romero keeping his mustache when playing The Joker, it’s impossible to forget that you’re watching Eva Mendes pretending to be a selfish, childish drunk in a dead end and deadening relationship with a married man (Matthew Modine). Riggen can’t help but keep her glamorous.
Also in the trying-too-hard category is the film’s embarrassingly misguided sense of humor. Riggen and screenwriter Hiram Martinez attempt to mine comedy from Ansiedad’s precocious and disaffected worldview. Her faux-daring matter-of-factness about her own body and life is presented as though it’s pushing an envelope but the film resembles nothing so much as a pilot for an ABC Family series. That would be fitting, given how TV-ready Ansiedad’s eventual revelations are. Meanwhile, extrapolating that false edginess to the rest of the characters proves even more disastrous. Comedian Russell Peters, as Grace’s boss, Emile, is apparently supposed to have us rolling in the aisle simply by referencing the fact that one of Grace’s coworkers is in an abusive marriage.
These are the results of a film that has no clear idea what to do with itself and so ends up aping the films it wants to be. At the bottom of it, there was once an idea, though. Ansiedad plans her journey by making a giant collage referencing all the possible coming-of-age conventions. It’s a clever and well-studied moment proving that, when it comes to the genre they’re referencing, the filmmakers know their stuff. Beyond that, though, they didn’t have a clue what to do with it.