In 1980, director Ronald F. Maxwell's Little Darlings told the story of two high-school girls at summer camp, focusing on their mutual transition to adulthood via first-time intercourse with different boys. The results were mostly inept and stupid -- sexploitation masquerading as earnest coming-of-age material -- but the film had a few very inspired moments. In his review, Roger Ebert praised one scene in which one of the young women declares in the wake of sex, "I feel so lonely." Ebert was correct to single that out, and the movie left one wishing that a gifted, sensitive director would tackle a comparable story from a mature perspective -- sustaining, over the course of the full running time, the same level of sensitivity and emotional nuance present in that one line of dialogue.
It took more than three decades, but a filmmaker has finally delivered the proper response to Darlings. With her female youth drama Very Good Girls, writer/director Naomi Foner (Running on Empty) etches out a portrait of teenage female relationships and attitudes toward sex with as much authenticity as any scripted drama in memory. It's surprising that this hasn't been done very often (particularly with the adroitness on display here), but itís nonetheless welcome to see a story like this come together so beautifully.
The movie takes place on Long Island during the final summer of adolescence. Lilly (Dakota Fanning) and Gerry (Elizabeth Olsen) are close friends and spend nearly all of their free time together. Lilly is low-key, quiet, and introspective -- an unbloomed rose -- while Gerry is more garrulous, social, and type-A, but neither have lost their virginity. They both fall for the same boy, an aspiring photographer named David (Boyd Holbrook) who supports himself by selling ice-cream novelties from a cart on Far Rockaway beach. Inevitably, he gravitates more toward one girl than the other. Lilly becomes deeply involved with the young man on emotional and physical levels, and she's reluctant to divulge this news to Gerry for fear of breaking her best friend's heart with a personal betrayal -- especially when she learns how much Gerry cares for David, and has deluded herself into believing that she's on the cusp of a serious relationship with him.
The plurality of the title is somewhat misleading in the sense that the story assumes the sole vantage point of Lilly, who, true to life, lacks the adult judgment at age 17 to know how to navigate complex waters. It's a testament to the material's sincerity and credibility that the physical act of intercourse is so incidental to the journey that Lilly undergoes: Foner shows us the emotional draw that pulls her into a relationship with David, and the confusion belying her misguided decision to keep the news from Gerry. She gets in way over her head, especially in her immediate, instinctive reaction to a sudden tragedy in†Gerry's life -- and that juvenile response threatens to throw their friendship off the rails. But throughout, Foner makes it clear to us that Lilly's intentions could not be any purer or nobler. Integrity and wisdom, in this case, are mutually exclusive.
It could be argued that David is too spotless of a character, too immaculate of a boyfriend -- someone without any flaws. In fact, he's sort of a younger version of Alan Bates' "perfect" artist lover in Paul Mazursky's An Unmarried Woman. If one examines the character independently of the movie's surrounding elements, this is a valid criticism, but the same defense that applied to the Mazursky film also applies here: This isn't a picture about the beau, but about its female characters. Foner must have felt that adding a lot of complications to David's personality would have thrown off the dramatic focus, and her instincts were correct.
In terms of performances, this outing cannot be faulted. The greatest asset among the cast is Fanning, who successfully transitions from a fascinating child actress into a compelling adult with her role. Especially in the later scenes, as circumstances bring Lilly face-to-face with the potential destruction of both her closest friendship and her first serious relationship, she exudes such rawness that she's mesmerizing to watch -- body trembling, tears filling her eyes. She makes vulnerability palpable, real, and terrifying for us.
In closing, a word needs to be said about the criticisms that have already been directed at Very Good Girls in the press. Much of the prerelease commentary thrust onto the movie is not simply sophomoric, but absurd and idiotic -- one reviewer blasted Foner (in her late sixties at the time of this production) as a woman out of sync with a generation she's incapable of understanding, and another even argued that the five-year age gap between Fanning and Olsen was an obvious botch. Neither observation is the slightest bit valid. As for Foner's age: Who the hell cares? The persuasiveness of the material invalidates this criticism. And as far as the actresses' age differences: This viewer had no knowledge of the disparity going in, and remained unaware of it for the duration of the picture (likely because Olsen looks much younger than she is). Very Good Girls doesn't go out of its way to reinvent the†medium and itís hardly the most profound youth film ever made, but it is sensitively wrought, incisively done, and beautifully observed from beginning to end, with nary an unconvincing scene, line, or gesture. And it does something truly rare and special by filtering one of the most complex and complicated periods of life through the eyes of a young woman. As such, one can only hope that it will be experienced by numerous girls in the throes of late adolescence -- many of whom will find that it strikes all too close to home for them.
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- Released: 2013
- Rating: R
- Review: In 1980, director Ronald F. Maxwell's Little Darlings told the story of two high-school girls at summer camp, focusing on their mutual transition to adulthood via first-time intercourse with different boys. The results were mostly inept and stupid -- sexpl… (more)