Pause and Affect
I posted this on Facebook a couple weeks ago: "Watching a terrible movie in two sittings isn't QUITE defeat, but it feels awfully damned close." Very Good Girls turned out not to be terrible, unless you consider mediocrity an affront to quality--which I do, so the statement stands.
The problem with writer/director Naomi Foner's coming-of-age story is that it's so generic as to be unworthy of the cast assembled to tell it. Dakota Fanning and Elizabeth Olsen star as Lilly and Gerri, two high school seniors who vow to lose their virginity before heading off to college. They fall for the same hunky ice cream vendor (Boyd Holbrook), but keep their affections secret from one another. Yes, it's a summer of first times, last times, betrayal, and half-nude shenanigans as the girls learn about life 'n stuff.
In addition to the marquee performers, Very Good Girls boasts supporting actors whose presence will likely elicit two reactions: A) surprise that they'd agree to such sub-CW melodrama after careers built on substantial roles, and B) an impromptu game of "Celebrity Six Degrees of Separation" ("Did Richard Dreyfuss ever do anything with Ellen Barkin? There's gotta be a Dreyfuss/Demi Moore connection somewhere, right?"). For viewers who are truly up on things, seeing Peter Sarsgaard inspire appreciation of Foner's film as a Night Moves reunion.*
Moving further into meta territory, I had a hard time watching Fanning and Olsen play vacuous high schoolers. It's jarring to see two performers who've very recently brought such intelligence and maturity to their careers take seven steps backwards. Gerri and Lilly apparently live in the same culturally secluded bubble as Jenny Wright's character in Obvious Child, dealing with family, boys, and sexuality with what might generously be described as dangerous naivete.
Worse, there's a contradictory air of salaciousness to the production that made me uncomfortable. Foner makes a point to show her leads in various stages of undress throughout the film, but not in a way that suggests these characters are carrying on like typical best friends. Much like Selena Gomez and Vanessa Hudgens' much-publicized shredding of their Disney-star reputations in last year's Spring Breakers, the sexuality on display in Very Good Girls seems designed only to prove that Fanning, in particular, isn't the little girl who burst onto the scene fourteen years ago. It's creepy, it's cold, and unsexy in the worst possible way.
And what of the desire object, David? Neither Holbrook nor Foner give any indication as to why two besties would fight over this character (aside from artistic inclinations and a practiced, smoldering pout that reminded me of the prince in Tangled). He comes off as the love child of Brad Pitt and Benicio Del Toro auditioning for the Ryan Gosling part in an indie romance. In fairness, his co-stars appear to be staging a revival of the Kristen Stewart acting method (all downward stares, fidgeting, and stammering), so I should probably give him the benefit of the doubt.
I've talked very little about Very Good Girls itself, mostly because there's so little to talk about. Not checking the clock was a Herculean act of will, and I wanted nothing more than to watch anything else. I'm not proud to admit that splitting this film into two viewings was the only way to get through it in one piece--but there you have it. In a world where Boyhood and The Perks of Being a Wallflower are accessible options, Foner's brand of adolescent exploration comes off as downright phony. There's nothing personal or exceptional about this gender-swapped update of The Summer of '42, and watching such a gifted cast give this sleepwalked material everything they've got filled me with both admiration and sadness.
*And, in a weird, alternate-universe way, a prequel.