REVIEW: Eva Mendes Brings Warmth — and the Hotcha-Cha Factor — to Girl in Progress
Teenage Ansiedad (Cierra Ramirez) is lacking in role models. Her father’s unknown, her best friend (Raini Rodriguez) is faithful but a little dull, and her mother Grace (Eva Mendes) is a hotcha-cha mess who dates married dudes and behaves less like a mom than a deadbeat roommate. So when her English teacher (Patricia Arquette, vital in a too-brief role) introduces the concept of the coming-of-age narrative, hyper-precocious Ansiedad decides to use it as a kind of emancipation blueprint.
Directed by Patricia Riggen (Under the Same Moon), Girl In Progress starts out breezy, making wacky archetypes of the overachieving latchkey kid and her appallingly irresponsible mom. Odd-jobbing Grace shrugs about finishing the cereal (and the milk) and forgets about her child’s existence whenever her current philandering squeeze (Matthew Modine) swings into view. Ansiedad resolves to apply her discipline to a teenaged trajectory so clichéd that it's easily converted into a giant flow chart on her bedroom wall. I got a little ahead of the script (by Hiram Martinez) when Ansiedad has her light bulb moment in English class, thinking perhaps the daughter might use a set of literary conventions to finally midwife her mother into adulthood.
Instead the narrative splits off into parallel parts, similar to the way Riggen divided Under the Same Moon between the story of a Mexican woman laboring as a Los Angeles housekeeper and that of her son’s journey from Mexico to find her. Ansiedad begins acting out her acting out, ticking off bullet points (ditch your old friends; infiltrate the cool circle; offer the alpha babe your virginity) like items on a grocery list. Were the conceit a little more genre- or source material-specific — if the picture followed some overarching inspiration the way Clueless played on Emma, say, or if it featured some of the alter-ego goofing of Youth in Revolt or the self-conscious twistiness of The Cabin in the Woods — the plot's terms would have been more firmly grounded and we might have been brought closer to Ansiedad’s logic. Ramirez’s bad girl schtick is occasionally amusing (“I’m out of control; catch you later," she deadpans at one point) but the idea that she would consciously risk becoming her mother just to get away from her never feels convincing.
Meanwhile, Grace's apparently bottomless self-absorption is well played by Mendes, who has always infused her man-candy roles with warmth and a weary intelligence behind her eyes. Both are on display when Grace's latest relationship implodes after she's confronted with an indifference to her daughter that equals and maybe even surpasses her own. At this point Girl in Progress attempts to go deep: The best friend acts out for real and Ansiedad heads for the bus station to earn her runaway badge. Riggen doesn't find a tonal equilibrium at this new level, though, and everything goes wobbly as Mendes and Ramirez are forced into what feels like a false moment of repentance and reconciliation.
Girl in Progress feels a little trapped by its own conceits: It plays with the idea that all rebellion is in some sense performed and makes a caricature out of the immature, attention-hungry mother, but it never liberates its characters from their molds. I wanted to believe that Grace suddenly straightens up and heads to school and Ansiedad finally gets the love and care she deserves, but was left with the feeling that their movie was still a few milestones short of full maturity.