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Girl In Progress | Review

Never Gets Beyond a Rough Draft: Riggen Receives Failing Grade

Painful. Awkward. Potentially damaging to your later development—these common traits associated with adolescence are also succinct descriptions for the latest film from Patricia Riggen, Girl In Progress, a coming of age story about a precocious young woman of Latin descent. Playing like a go-to guide on adolescent clichés (her ethnic background a minor detail that we’re reminded of infrequently and awkwardly, as if it were a last minute ingredient thrown into a mix without dissolving sufficiently) Riggen’s latest theatrical release since her 2007 art house hit Under the Same Moon is more like a young person’s transition story exemplifying and wallowing in regression.

Ansiedad (Cierra Ramirez) is a spunky young woman at the end of her high school career. We’re introduced to her as she gives a demeaning presentation about her mother (Eva Mendes), an uneducated waitress descended from immigrants who has serial dated herself out of more than one city. Since the assignment was to give a presentation about who you admire, Ansiedad is suspended for her behavior, endangering her scholarship. Meanwhile, her English teacher, Ms. Armstrong (Patricia Arquette) has just started a lesson on coming of age stories, Catcher In the Rye provocatively splashed across her blackboard.

When Ansiedad learns about “rites of passage,” she decides that she must experience several of the experiences common to the American teenage girl in order to become a woman and get away from her caring but often absent mother, whose biggest problem is her chronic search for love (she’s currently involved with a smarmy, married gynecologist played by Matthew Modine). With her unpopular best friend in tow (Raini Rodriguez), Ansiedad literally maps out a way to fast track as a rebellious teen, lose her virginity, and become a woman, so she can fly away elsewhere. Obviously, things don’t go as Ansiedad plans.

The biggest problem with Girl In Progress is an absolutely terrible screenplay by Hiram Martinez, a man that obviously knows nothing about what a precocious young female in today’s modern world might be like. From the opening frame, it’s as if every possible cliché amalgamated from every “teen faces problems with mom” film was cut and paste and then further watered down for palatable purposes. While it desperately tries to play with the theme of the coming of age story, this inchoate, ungainly narrative is no bildungsroman.

As the lead, the young Cierra Ramirez is bright eyed and bushy tailed, but talent isn’t enough to overcome the stagnant mediocrity of the dialogue. Worse is how we’re supposed to believe that such a bright and talented young woman as Ansiedad would come up with such an asinine idea, her behavior more akin to a mentally disturbed person who has long ago lost touch with reality. And the beautiful Eva Mendes gives a concerted effort to be a harried waitress, toiling away in Emile’s Crab Shack, perpetually procrastinating going to beauty school as she waits to see if her married gyno love interest might leave his wife—but she’s just simply not believable in this role. She’s the best and brightest spot of this mottled framework, but she deserves better.

Continually bouncing checks going towards some mysterious college tuition things (Ansiedad has a scholarship, and it’s not explained what all these other catastrophic expenses are) and working two jobs (little Ansiedad doesn’t work at all, but just bitches about her mother), she’s doing everything she should be for her ungrateful kid and looking for a little love in her life as well. If this film were to undergo a re-edit featuring a twist that Ansiedad suffers from a malignant tumor, explaining her bizarre, unrealistic behavior and the title changed to Girl In Regress, this bland little ordeal could very well end up being worth your time. Otherwise, just watch any infinitely more interesting after school special about angsty teen dumb dumbs and you’ll at least be able to excuse that it was made for television.

Los Angeles based Nicholas Bell is IONCINEMA.com's Chief Film Critic and covers film festivals such as Sundance, Berlin, Cannes and TIFF. He is part of the critic groups on Rotten Tomatoes, The Los Angeles Film Critics Association (LAFCA), FIPRESCI, the Online Film Critics Society (OFCS) and GALECA. His top 3 for 2023: The Beast (Bonello) Poor Things (Lanthimos), Master Gardener (Schrader). He was a jury member at the 2019 Cleveland International Film Festival.

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