Very Good Girls is set in contemporary Brooklyn, but it’s shot (by Bobby Bukowski) with the kind of gauzy glow that suggests a European perfume commercial. It’s lovely to look at, but also mystifying and ultimately annoying, and that describes the movie too.
Naomi Foner, who wrote and directed the film, makes her directing debut here, after a lengthy screenwriting career that most notably includes Sidney Lumet’s Running On Empty. (She’s probably best known these days as matriarch of the Gyllenhaal family; son-in-law Peter Sarsgaard turns up here in one of his trademark sleazebag roles, his second of this Sundance alone.) She’s very good at capturing the quicksilver moments of close relationships, but plotting isn’t her strong suit.
Very Good Girls is essentially a romantic triangle, although until close to the very end, one party doesn’t know about it. In (inevitably) the summer before they begin college, bestest friends and virgins Lily (Dakota Fanning) and Gerry (Elizabeth Olsen) both fall for David (Boyd Holbrook), but he responds only to Lily, a fact she keeps from Gerry. The drama concerns the effect this falsehood has on their friendship.
Despite the strong performances by Fanning and Olsen, two of the most distinctive young actresses of the moment, Lily and Gerry are both drawn as cliches. Lily is the pale daughter of WASPs (Ellen Barkin and Clark Gregg) who have wintry fights about his infidelity; Gerry, the Jewish daughter of loud-mouth liberals Richard Dreyfuss and Demi Moore, wears flowing dresses and composes songs. (The excellent original songs on the movie’s soundtrack are by Jenny Lewis, who also composed the background score.) The worst cliche of all, though, is David, who reminds us that the Sensitive Cipher Artistic Hunk long predated the Magic Pixie Dream Girl as a romantic trope. David takes pensive photographs and challenges Lily to be her true self, when he’s not picturesquely posing without his shirt.
Foner clearly cares deeply about her characters, but she hasn’t given them, or her actresses, any room to breathe. (Fanning, in particular, needs careful handling–as serious and talented as she is, when photographed in the wrong way, as she sometimes is here, she sometimes shows intensity with the kind of pop-eyed glare of her startling blue eyes that suggests the supernatural characters she’s played in theTwilight and other movies.) A third-act tragedy tears them apart (so they can be brought back together), and even when either of them is supposed to do something “surprising,” it’s in exactly the way you’d expect. Even though these girls are inexperienced teenagers, they act very much like middle-aged women in movies, as though the script had been adjusted demographically to help it earn financing.
Very Good Girls is about daring, but there’s no daring in it; it’s warm-hearted, hazy and mostly empty.
The screenplay for The Spectacular Now, a Dramatic Competition entry at Sundance, was written by the team of Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber, who also wrote (500) Days of Summer, but the new film has none of the breezy and somewhat gimmicky visual style of that hit. Director James Ponsoldt, instead, goes to the extreme of structuring several of the key sequences with little if any editing at all, with just one or two continuous shots. It’s a strategy that underscores the plainspoken earnestness of the film, one of the best stories about teens since Friday Night Lights bit the dust.
Oddly, even though Ponsoldt didn’t write Spectacular Now (and it was based on a novel by Tim Tharp to begin with), the film plays in many respects like a prequel to Ponsoldt’s last Sundance entry, Smashed. There is, again, the pull of alcohol as a pleasant means of blocking out reality, and the conflict within a young woman (here Shailene Woodley’s Aimee) between responsibility and her feelings for a damaged male, Miles Teller’s Sutter. The difference is that while Smashed was mostly concerned with Mary Elizabeth Winstead’s character (Winstead shows up again in Spectacular Now, part of the superb supporting cast as Sutter’s sister), the new film zeroes in on Sutter and the increasing torment he suffers when suddenly being the high school “fun guy” isn’t fun anymore.
Although Spectacular Now turns a bit conventional by the very end, for most of its length it takes an unusual, even daring slant on the teen romance story. We’ve seen plenty of superficial jocks melt before sweet, honest girls before, but Sutter isn’t really a jock–he’s just the kid who, by way of his ever-present flask, is unfailingly good company. And the film also delves into the damage a boy like that can do to the sweet, honest girl, even if he doesn’t mean to hurt her.
Spectacular Now does a mostly remarkable job of side-stepping cliche, with the result that when he reaches its emotional peaks late in the story, they really have a punch. The young characters keep stepping outside of their types, in a script that for once is influenced by the Breakfast Club John Hughes, and not the Ferris Bueller.
Ponsoldt is superb with actors, and this film, like Smashed, is crammed with performers who can realize all the nuances of the script. Apart from Woodley, who proves that her work in The Descendants was no fluke (and also her willingness to play an unglamorized teen who doesn’t turn into a CW star at the end), and Teller, little known until now, the cast includes Jennifer Jason Leigh and Kyle Chandler as Sutter’s parents, Bob Odenkirk (very low key) as his boss, Brie Larson as his ex and Andre Royo as a teacher.
Is there a wide audience for The Spectacular Now, a film without fast-cut musical montages, animated cutaways, or the comforts of cliche? It would be nice to think that a film as moving and sincere as this can sell some tickets. The film has been acquired for distribution by newcomer A24, so we’ll find out later this year.