The idea of a teenage daughter rebelling against her mother under the guise of gaining independence is compelling. The fatal flaw of Girl in Progress is that this idea is not taken seriously until the final act, at which point we’ve been so turned off by the plot and characters that we no longer care. It really is shocking how badly this movie is structured and how poorly the characters are developed; what should have been a poignant and insightful generational story has been reduced to an implausible and inconsistent mess. It starts out at the level of a second-rate sitcom, one that makes the dread mistake of believing the jokes it’s telling are actually funny. It then makes a wild shift in tone and becomes shamelessly sentimental. This is not to suggest that it turns dour and depressing; it simply becomes mechanical, with all the emotional loose ends tied up into neat little knots.
Taking place in Seattle, it tells the story of a teenager named Ansiedad (Cierra Ramirez) and her mother, Grace (Eva Mendes), who got pregnant at seventeen, was kicked out of the house by her tyrannical mother, never finished high school, never got married, and now works as both a maid and a waitress in a seafood shack. She talks the talk about going back to night school, getting her diploma, and moving towards a computer career. That’s actually the reason she and Ansiedad moved to the Pacific Northwest in the first place. The thing is, they have moved numerous times in the past several years. And Grace is no closer to starting night school. What’s the holdup? Basically, she has refused to grow up. She has had several men in her life and is currently dating a married gynecologist (Matthew Modine). One could make the case that she’s fun to be around, but she really isn’t there for Ansiedad the way a parent should be.
Ansiedad, obviously aware of her mother’s caviler attitude about everything, rebels in school by making inappropriate class presentations. Then her English teacher (Patricia Arquette) introduces to her the concept of the coming-of-age story, and this is the point at which the film goes spectacularly wrong. In learning about such stories, in which a character or set of characters transitions from childhood to adulthood, Ansiedad decides that she has been a kid long enough and that she must accelerate her journey towards maturity and independence. She researches coming-of-age stories extensively, especially in regards to the formula they tend to follow. From that, she compiles a list of life experiences that she must go. She then makes a creative-looking arrow chart and enlists her best friend, Tavita (Raini Rodriguez), to help her cross every item off the list.
In following it, Ansiedad proves she knows absolutely nothing about authentic coming-of-age stories. Her methods are cruel, manipulative, dangerous, and quite frankly, stupid. Had director Patricia Riggen and screenwriter Hiram Martinez been aware of this, perhaps this plot device would have worked. Alas, they initially treat it as a lighthearted comedy routine. Essentially, she believes she must go from being a “good girl” to a “bad girl,” at which point she will miraculously come out the other side an adult. On the journey, she will join the chess club, dress nerdy, provoke the mean girl, manipulate her into friendship, start dressing as a bad girl, lose interest in school, catch the attention of the one boy who’s a womanizing jerk, and ultimately lose her virginity to him. She will also pretend to dump Tavita by making fun of her weight and sneak into a nursing home just so that she can claim sickly old woman as her grandmother.
Ansiedad is so desperate to go through these life experiences that she will steal money from her mother, lie to authority figures, and intentionally ruin her reputation. How could anyone in their right minds believe this to be suitable material for a comedy? This is just tactless and insensitive. This story needed to be in the hands of filmmakers who actually understand people, teenagers and adults alike. The characters in this story are about as authentic as three-dollar bills. By the time we reach the final act, at which point it becomes a bit more dramatic, the damage has already been done. We no longer have it within us to like them, or even to invest in them for dramatic purposes.
Grace is the subject of a silly and barely developed subplot involving suddenly becoming the manager of the seafood shack and a busboy-turned-waiter nicknamed Mission Impossible (Eugenio Derbez), who can barely speak English but clearly has a thing for Grace. He does something for her, something that largely exists only in movies like this. His promise to correct his mistake is even less believable, if such a thing was even possible. Meanwhile, Grace continues to see her married lover on the sly, eventually figuring out that he’s a sleazebag. We, of course, had figured that out as early as the first scene. If Girl in Progress is what counts for a coming-of-age story nowadays, we might be forced to go back to the drawing board. Its title isn’t even deserving of the word “progress.”