The gimmick of this tongue-in-cheek comedy is that teenager Ansiedad (Cierra Ramirez) — whose name means “anxiety” in Spanish — tries using every coming-of-age cinema cliché to transform herself into an independent adult. There are two things wrong with that too-precious premise, which may have sounded like an interesting pitch but falls short onscreen.
The first problem is that identifying and re-enacting a series of clichés doesn’t make them any more appealing. That means all of the winkingly intentional irony gets old fast. Secondly, anyone who has gone to enough trouble to catalog steps such as dressing like a slut, dumping a best friend and becoming a “bad girl” would know that movie characters always end up realizing those rites of passage were mistakes by the time the credits roll. Because movies already have imparted whatever lessons are to be learned from things like losing one’s virginity to the wrong guy, why not go straight to practicing self-respect and compassion for others without all the hassle?
Screenwriter Hiram Martinez eventually seems to realize he has boxed the story into a corner by making Ansiedad so inhumanly selfish and irritatingly smug she seems more coldly condescending than comic. Precocious and obviously intelligent, the character nevertheless has to behave like a brainless idiot who can’t figure out why her best friend would get upset over being betrayed and publicly humiliated. A third-act attempt at transitioning from irony to dramedy feels jarring and desperate, as if the filmmakers abruptly gave up on trying to sell detached cynicism as charming.
Ansiedad’s immature and neglectful mother Grace (Eva Mendes, broadly overdoing the ditzy act) is having an affair with a married gynecologist (Matthew Modine) who is only interested in her body. One of Grace’s immigrant coworkers at the crab house where she waits tables is so hopelessly dumb his nickname is Mission Impossible (Eugenio Derbez, who breaks character by leaping from boringly blank-faced to ebulliently extroverted when he gets a skillet in his hand). As if to make amends for those negative ethnic stereotypes’ moral and intellectual shortcomings, the movie gives Ansiedad a Hispanic best friend (Raini Rodriguez) whose wealthy family owns a spectacular mansion.
As Ansiedad’s unflamboyant English teacher Ms Armstrong, Patricia Arquette is the only character who resembles a believably real person. Hints about her troubled personal life include a phone call about losing custody of a never-seen child, but details of that backstory are unexplored.
Director Patricia Riggen gets to include some brief black-and-white fantasy scenes when Ansiedad imagines adulthood, but the rest of the movie looks conventionally generic.
Not smart enough to be as clever as it wants nor convincing enough to seem genuine, Girl in Progress is as frustratingly awkward as its main character. Anxiety, indeed.
[Rating: 1 star]
Girl in Progress is released in theatres on May 11, 2012.