January 23, 2013

SHOWBUZZDAILY @ SUNDANCE 2013: “Very Good Girls”


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 the Twilight 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.
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About the Author

Mitch Salem
MITCH SALEM has worked on the business side of the entertainment industry for 20 years, as a senior business affairs executive and attorney for such companies as NBC, ABC, USA, Syfy, Bravo, and BermanBraun Productions, and before that, at the NY law firm of Weil, Gotshal & Manges. During all that, he has more or less constantly been going to the movies and watching TV, and writing about both since the 1980s. His film reviews also currently appear on and In addition, he is co-writer of an episode of the television series "Felicity."