Starring: Cierra Ramirez, Eva Mendes, Matthew Modine
Directed by: Patricia Riggen (“Under the Same Moon”)
Written by: Hiram Martinez (debut)
It’s a term every high school freshman English class has covered since teachers started passing out copies of “The Catcher in the Rye” and “To Kill a Mockingbird.” Whether reading Charlotte Bronte’s original novel “Jane Eyre” or watching director Cary Fukunaga’s dark and elegant film adaptation from last year, the coming-of-age story has outlined the transition from childhood to adulthood for a countless number of literary and cinematic characters over generations. Adding itself into the already crowded film genre is “Girl in Progress,” a sort of meta coming-of-age tale that attempts to stand out from the pack by making its lead protagonist self-aware of her own maturation. It’s a sometimes clever albeit limiting little concept from director Patricia Riggen (“Under the Same Moon”) and first-time feature screenwriter Hiram Martínez that never rises above the initial setup. There may be a serious need for more well-structured, Latino-themed movies of this brand (consider “Raising Victor Vargas,” “Real Women Have Curves,” and “Quinceañera” admirable examples), but “Girl in Progress” is sadly not one of them.
Meet Ansiedad (newcomer Cierra Ramírez in a likeable role), a frustrated teenager living in Seattle who is tired of being treated like a kid by her often negligent mother Grace (Eva Mendes), whose current relationship with a married doctor (Matthew Modine) doesn’t make her an ideal role model for her daughter. When Ansiedad (Spanish for anxiety) learns what a coming-of-age story is in school, she decides she will fast-track her way through adolescence by checking off a list of things she must experience to reach adulthood (first kiss, bad-girl phase, loss of virginity, running away to NYC, etcetera).
The approach “Girl in Progress” takes might’ve worked if it didn’t play right into the hand it wanted to avoid. By giving Ansiedad the freedom to map out her own transformative journey, there aren’t any scenes of insight or ambition except on an artificial level. Instead, Martínez fashions the script in the same manner Ansiedad would if she chose to ever document her unrealistic strategy on paper, cliché after cliché.
In one particular scene that had the potential of being a very sweet moment between mother and daughter, Grace kneels at the base of a bathtub to wash Ansiedad’s hair and have a heart-to-heart talk. The scene is interrupted by Grace’s ringing cell phone, which she promptly answers to unnecessarily reiterate how self-involved her character is. It’s only one example of the many pointless plot devices misused in “Girl in Progress,” a family film that defines the word epiphany so someone can actually have an epiphany. If that’s considered forward-thinking filmmaking, here’s to always staying a step behind.