Very Good Girls | Review
The Boyfriend Experience: Foner’s Directorial Debut a Derivative Shard
Screenwriter Naomi Foner makes her directorial debut with Very Good Girls, though her preceding reputation makes this sedimentary, uninspired film even more surprising. Mother of actors Jake and Maggie Gyllenhaal, Foner penned several of ex-husband Stephen Gyllenhaal’s more notable titles, such as Losing Isaiah (1995) and A Dangerous Woman (1993). Considering the authoritative, complicated, and resilient female characters portrayed famously by the likes of Jessica Lange, Halle Berry, and Debra Winger, this trifling and tedious story of a late adolescent friendship tested by mutual attraction to the same boy seems born from the pen of a novice writing about her only familiar focal point,
In New York City during their last summer before going away to college, best friends Lilly (Dakota Fanning) and Gerri (Elizabeth Olsen) vow to lose their virginity. Gerri has her eyes set on David (Boyd Holbrook), who operates an ice-cream stand at the beach they like to attend. But David seems to be more attracted to Lilly. While Gerri pines for her mystery man amidst the rather lackadaisical atmosphere of her progressives guardians (Demi Moore, Richard Dreyfuss), Lilly’s more high strung home life, run by therapist parents, is thrown into chaos when she sees dad (Clark Gregg) fondling a woman in his home office shared with mom (Ellen Barkin). While her father moves out, Lilly finds her emotional turmoil causing a distancing effect with Gerri, who doesn’t seem to appreciate her own loving, open-minded parents. Starting a secret romance with David, Lilly is unsure of how to break it to Gerri that she’s sleeping with the man of her dreams. But a tragedy inevitably forced the truth out into the open.
Favors, perhaps, were repaid, explaining the presence of a high profile supporting cast ironed into bromidic appearances, such as Demi Moore and Richard Dreyfuss (Sarsgaard, starring as Fanning’s boss, is Foner’s son-in-law, and she has no qualms about typecasting him as a creepy older gentleman with a fondness for seducing young women).
The underappreciated Ellen Barkin gets to play a shrill, unhappy mother and therapist, though her character more closely resembles a pent-up housewife. If she really had a chance to sharpen her talons, perhaps we could have had some scenes with a bit more dramatic depth, yet both the young girls’ family lives are given little more than a superficial glance, seemingly only there to juxtapose their differing backgrounds.
On paper, Fanning and Olsen seem like inspired casting (even if Olsen is technically already a few years beyond the age requirement of her character) and both actresses give natural, organic performances, though the film primarily belongs to Fanning’s character. Unfortunately, there’s nothing noteworthy whatsoever about any of the proceedings. One can’t even really be bothered to describe the two young ladies as ‘very good girls,’ because we never really learn anything about them at all beyond the fact that they’re about to go to college and are still virgins—apparently still the lone deciding factor in the differentiation between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ females.
Foner’s screenplay gets seriously bogged down in the development of the romance between Fanning and the barely serviceable Boyd Holbrook. Sneaking off into his lair, a photojournalist’s pad he crashes at, he fumbles a copy of Sylvia Plath’s poetry at her and demands she read aloud to him. And, of all of Plath’s wonderful prose, the poem in question is the tortured “Daddy,” which relates to Lilly’s weird problems at home concerning dad cheating on mom. Except, she’s cut off mid-way through the poem to lose her virginity.
It’s a forced profundity that never comes close to developing into material that feels original or even energized by the roiling emotions that should accompany a defining (if banal) rite of passage, whether that be friendship tested or adulthood entered via sexual initiation. “I feel like I don’t understand you,” Lilly shouts at David. We’re left to determine the same pertaining to the need for another story about two women fighting over one unremarkable man.