Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Virgin Summer: Familiar "Very Good Girls" aided by Fanning and Olsen

Very Good Girls (2014)
91 min., rated R.

The directorial debut of screenwriter Naomi Foner (Maggie and Jake Gyllenhaal's mother), "Very Good Girls" does not surprise with its ironic title when opening with its two female characters, Lilly (Dakota Fanning) and Gerry (Elizabeth Olsen), daring each other to go streaking across a public beach and into the water. It's a defining moment for both girls who are about to undergo a sexual awakening with the opposite sex. For being a naturalistic indie dramedy, the film is better when it's focusing on simple human interaction and the pains of pre-adulthood over the summer and less so when its transparent plot starts spinning into a semi-love triangle that, frankly, strikes as blasé and cursory. Overall, "Very Good Girls" is pleasant but tough to get overly excited about when it doesn't add up to very much in the end. Fanning and Olsen are very good, though.

Headstrong and Yale-bound, Lilly Berger (Fanning) has just graduated high school and has yet to lose her virginity. It's hard living under the same roof where her shrink parents, Norma (Ellen Barkin) and Edward (Clark Gregg), see their patients in-house, especially when Dad is having an affair with one of them. As summer gets underway, Lilly continues working as a N.Y.C. ferry tour guide and avoiding her creepy, overly friendly boss (Peter Sarsgaard). She and hippie best friend Gerry (Olsen) make a pact to get rid of their V-cards, and an opportunity opens up when they both run into ice cream vendor/photographer/graffiti artist David (Boyd Holbrook). Gerry first takes an interest in David, inviting him to one of her music gigs, but Lilly and David already have something, so that makes Lilly the other woman. Can these best friends stay friends or will they allow a hunky older boy to get in between them?

"Very Good Girls" doesn't sound like it would pass the Bechdel test, and for a while, it flunks. Lilly and Gerry define their summer by pursuing the same guy. This all may sound like a total contrivance (and that's because it is), but under an easy-going mood of summery warmth (along with Jennifer Lewis' omnipresent, if never obtrusive, musical score) that comes with writer-director Foner's unpushy, low-key visual style, it's a bit easier to swallow than not. In the right sense, Foner does not coddle her two female characters, often depicting them as whiny, selfish, and entitled in calling their parents by their first names, but never vilifying them or putting us off too much. When Lilly believes David to have spent an intimate night with Gerry, she goes off to possibly give her boss what he's wanted. And, there comes a point where the viewer just waits for the other shoe to drop and the truth to come out. Unless they know each other's schedules or have one another on tracking devices, characters show up at opportune (or inopportune) times a few too many times. Lilly will walk in on her father sleeping with his patient. David will appear outside Lilly's house just as she's running out from having an argument with her mother. Gerry will be standing on a street corner to see something that will put a rift in her friendship with Lilly.

Older viewers will really feel their age in watching 20-year-old Dakota Fanning, once the little, wise-beyond-her-years talent who held her own against acting heavyweights like Sean Penn in "I Am Sam" and Denzel Washington in "Man on Fire," fearlessly playing her first adult role as Cherie Curie in "The Runaways" and now a teen who's taking hold of her own sexuality. Lilly is drawn with complexity, and thank goodness for that, because it gives Fanning the chance to imbue the role with her own maturity and experience. As for Elizabeth Olsen, the character of Gerry is less fully written, but the vibrant actress gives her a loose, relaxed, fun-loving spirit. No fault of the performance by Boyd Holbrook (a 32-year-old actor, believe it or not), but we never quite understand both David and Lilly's interest in the other. With only two scenes of speaking dialogue apiece, Richard Dreyfuss and Demi Moore, as Gerry's lefty parents, are nice to see even if they aren't allowed much time to carve out memorable moments. From the first frame to the last, it's not hard to predict how everything will progress for Lilly and Gerry. Mostly though, it is the empathetic, mostly appealing performances by Elizabeth Olsen and Dakota Fanning and their touching camaraderie that give "Very Good Girls" its fair luster.

Grade: C +

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