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Review: 'Girl in Progress' never really grows up

CHRISTY LEMIRE
9 May 2012
In this film image released by Pantelion Films, Eva Mendes, left, and Cierra Ramirez are shown in a scene from "Girl in Progress." (AP Photo/Pantelion Films, Bob Akester)
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In this film image released by Pantelion Films, Eva Mendes, left, and Cierra Ramirez are shown in a scene from "Girl in Progress." (AP Photo/Pantelion Films, Bob Akester)

The strong, sexy presence of Eva Mendes and the girlish perkiness of Cierra Ramirez can only go so far to make the forced mother-daughter dramedy "Girl in Progress" tolerable.

It's a coming-of-age story that knows it's a coming-of-age story — as in, our young heroine is well aware of the conventions of this kind of tale and goes out of her way to manufacture various rites of passage to expedite her transformation from innocence to womanhood. Ramirez's character, the teenage Ansiedad, literally creates a flow chart in her bedroom and spells out her strategy with her only friend (the sweetly nerdy Raini Rodriguez) — whom she'll soon cast aside, she declares, because it's a necessary step in the process.

Breaking down and sending up a specific genre is fine if the script is strong enough to get away with such cutesy self-reference, as in "Juno" and "Easy A." Director Patricia Riggen and screenwriter Hiram Martinez don't go far enough, don't dig deep enough with these characters. They play it too safe, which makes "Girl in Progress" feel like a slightly racier version of an ABC Family show — and the flat, overly bright lighting further makes it feel like forgettable television.

It certainly doesn't help that the two main figures are cliches. Mendes' Grace is the child in the equation, having given birth when she was just 17 and hopping from man to man and town to town ever since. Ansiedad — which means anxiety in Spanish — is the responsible one: Smart, studious and organized, she's left to scrub the sink full of dishes while her mom's out with her married gynecologist boyfriend (Matthew Modine, whose character doesn't have a single perceptible redeeming quality).

Do you think it's possible that, by the end, they'll both have learned some lessons and assumed their rightful roles?

Riggen cuts awkwardly and sometimes too quickly between potentially poignant moments and scenes of wacky humor, which undermines her attempts at emotional honesty. Meanwhile, supporting characters who were intended to provide depth merely feel like types — Modine's cold, controlling wife or the kindhearted Mexican immigrant who works alongside Grace at a restaurant. And in a painfully literal device, Ansiedad's English teacher (Patricia Arquette) just happens to be explaining the steps in a coming-of-age story as Ansiedad embarks on them.

It's maddening: "Girl in Progress" knows that every teen movie has to have a blowout bash where important events take place, and it can't even get the tone of that right.

This is being marketed as an ideal film for moms and daughters to see together on Mother's Day weekend. A long, awkward brunch sounds more fun — and more truthful.

"Girl in Progress," a Lionsgate and Pantelion Films release, is rated PG-13 for mature thematic elements, sexual content including crude references, and drinking — all involving teens. Running time: 84 minutes. One and a half stars out of four.

___

Motion Picture Association of America rating definitions:

G — General audiences. All ages admitted.

PG — Parental guidance suggested. Some material may not be suitable for children.

PG-13 — Special parental guidance strongly suggested for children under 13. Some material may be inappropriate for young children.

R — Restricted. Under 17 requires accompanying parent or adult guardian.

NC-17 — No one under 17 admitted.

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