by Matt Levine
The first minute of Very Good Girls contains maudlin indie-pop music, a brief voice-over narration about the recklessness of youth, and shots of young Lilly (Dakota Fanning) spinning blissfully in the sun and gazing wistfully out of a moving train window. At this point, you would be forgiven in assuming that Very Good Girls is the most obnoxious piece of syrupy faux-indie coming-of-age bullshit you will see in theaters this year. You’d be mostly correct in this assumption, but despite its avalanche of flaws, this is a hard movie to hate: writer-director Naomi Foner’s focus on young womanhood is at least well-intentioned, and the casting (though completely unconvincing) allows us to witness some committed performers giving it their all. Very Good Girls is very, very bad, but there’s no denying it’s a warmhearted failure.
AMC Eden Prairie
Director: Naomi Foner
Producers: Norton Herrick, Michael London, Mary Jane Skalski, Janice Williams
Writer: Naomi Foner
Cinematographer: Bobby Bukowski
Editor: Andrew Hafitz
Music: Jenny Lewis
Cast: Dakota Fanning, Elizabeth Olsen, Boyd Holbrook, Ellen Barkin, Kiernan Shipka, Clare Foley, Clark Gregg, Demi Moore, Richard Dreyfuss, Owen Campbell, Peter Sarsgaard
Premiere: January 22, 2013 – Sundance Film Festival
US Theatrical Release: July 25, 2014
US Distributor: Tribeca Film
High-school graduate Lilly and her best friend Geri (Elizabeth Olsen) plan to do as little as possible during their last summer before college, besides hopefully losing their virginity and doing crazy-sexy-ridiculous things like skinny-dipping in a well-populated, non-nude beach in broad daylight. (This is the second scene in the movie, so at least Very Good Girls has the decency to let you know what you’re in for right away.) 20-year-old Fanning resembles a late-teenager, but Olsen is 25 and looks about as high-school-age as Amy Sedaris in Strangers with Candy. The casting inanities proliferate from there: Lilly’s parents are played by Clark Gregg and heavily Botoxed Ellen Barkin (in what universe could these characters ever have a relationship?), while Geri’s are played by Richard Drefyuss and Demi Moore, who look more like a father and daughter together. The always-reliable Peter Sarsgaard also appears in a thankless role as Lilly’s lecherous boss Fitzsimmons, though his character’s name might as well be Plot Device #4. Some of these performers are fine actors and they do what they can to resist the screenplay’s clichés, but that’s ultimately akin to trying to move a mountain.
Lilly and Geri’s lazy summer is endangered by greasy-hunky David (Boyd Holbrook), an ice-cream vendor, amateur photographer, and Sylvia Plath enthusiast (!) who, despite these broadly-drawn quirks, has zero personality. Geri takes to his taciturn pseudo-charm and pursues him aggressively, hoping he’ll be her “first”; but David falls in love with shy, graceful Lilly and sees her behind Geri’s back, ultimately having sex with Lilly. So far this sounds like a lame Gossip Girls episode, but about halfway through Very Good Girls the plot turns truly ridiculous: after Geri’s father dies, guilt-ridden Lilly passes David onto her in the hopes he’ll deflower her, then becomes enraged when this apparently happens. Life lesson: don’t console your mourning best friend by having her fuck your boyfriend and then act victimized by everyone you’ve manipulated.
Presumably Foner intends to paint women’s late teenage years as a time of folly and epiphany, with Lilly learning the value of friendship from the enormous mistakes she’s made. So the illogic of her behavior could be a valid portrayal of the recklessness of youth, if only there was anything profound or moving about her plight. But Foner’s by-the-numbers script rushes through each altercation and emotional revelation with tidy simplicity; the lessons that Lilly learns in Very Good Girls could fit onto a fortune cookie. Fanning deserves a lot of credit for making her occasionally engaging, but she’s an insufferable character at heart, and the movie isn’t realistic enough to make her flaws relatable.
I’m heaping a lot of ridicule on Very Good Girls, but there are signs of life and intelligence. Early in the film, Lilly walks in on her father, a doctor with an in-home practice, fooling around with one of his patients. The sympathy Lilly feels for her father after he’s kicked out of the house aligns her with him—clearly she believes she’s also cheated on Geri and David, figuratively speaking. A prominent poster for Jules and Jim in Lilly’s bedroom also parallels her foolhardy love triangle with the hedonistic (though ultimately devastating) ménage a trois in Truffaut’s film, though this is more of an overreaching name-drop than anything else. The levity of some of the performances (especially Olsen’s) also prevents the movie from becoming unbearable, though it’s a distressing exercise in watching capable performers battle against unworthy material.
Mostly, though, Very Good Girls is a disappointing cavalcade of wasted opportunities. Foner has been a screenwriter for decades (albeit for mediocre movies like Bee Season), and one might have hoped that her directorial debut about young female friendship would be a sensitive and moving depiction. No such luck, as Foner fumbles constantly as both writer and director. She is content to make Very Good Girls yet another story about two women fighting for the same guy, and when they finally learn that their friendship is more important, they embrace their liberation by stripping to their underwear and frolicking through a sprinkler—hardly an empowering depiction of young womanhood. Visually, the film is colorful but predictable, and the cringe-inducing soundtrack makes you wish for a mandated moratorium on all acoustic music in indie films. The worst offender is the scene in which Lilly loses her virginity to David on the floor of her garage; it could have been a powerful moment if not for the syrupy tune that raises its ugly head on the soundtrack, which sounds like the awful three-chord idiocy your pretentious singer-songwriter friend forces you to listen to.
Very Good Girls’ badness is especially enlightening compared to another movie about young female sexuality from earlier this year, It Felt Like Love. Both films are directorial debuts by female filmmakers, set in New York City and following teenage girls eager to lose their virginity, but the similarities end there. It Felt Like Love is dark, dreary, and uncomfortable, emphasizing how traumatic one’s sexual awakening can be; Very Good Girls is light and airy, brushing past death, betrayal, and the loss of virginity with almost stubborn jubilance. It Felt Like Love also concentrates on explicitly lower-class characters, while Very Good Girls follows privileged families with oceanside mansions near Brighton Beach. Lilly and Geri’s economic well-being reinforces their depiction as carefree and reckless; they only suffer temporarily from the mistakes they’ve made. A film pitched somewhere between It Felt Like Love’s drudgery and Very Good Girls’ buoyancy would be ideal—life is neither as dismal or as whimsical as these movies respectively make them out to be. But between the two, Eliza Hittman’s It Felt Like Love is the stronger, more unique, more respectful film, taking a serious and clear-eyed look at teenage sexuality. Very Good Girls, on the other hand, does its characters and its audience a disservice by pretending to portray the electricity of young womanhood, when it can only muster up clichés that have no bearing on reality.