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Movie Review: 'Girl in Progress'

Coming-of-age tale stars Eva Mendes, and charts growing pains of teen daughter and single mom

Patricia Riggen
Rating: PG-13. Running Time: 1:30
Stars: Eva Mendes, Cierra Ramirez, Matthew Modine, Patricia Arquette

The title of Mexican director Patricia Riggen’s latest film, Girl in Progress, is a bit misleading: The “girl” is actually two women. Single mother Grace (Eva Mendes) works as a waitress in a Seattle seafood restaurant, has a history of disastrous romantic relationships and is carrying on with a married doctor (Matthew Modine). Her teenage daughter, Ansiedad (Cierra Ramirez), takes inspiration from an English teacher’s lesson on coming-of-age tales and decides to shortcut her way to adulthood by creating her own rites of passage.

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For Ansiedad, this means dropping her best friend, becoming a bad girl, going through a “blasting death-metal phase” and losing her virginity — all in one school year. What she’s really doing, of course, is re-creating the life story of her rebellious mother, who gave birth at 17 and left home shortly thereafter.

Ansiedad—“anxiety” in Spanish — is a perfect name for this character, who comes off as one of those preternaturally self-aware adolescents found only in Hollywood movies. It’s not that her pain isn’t real; it’s just that she’s a bit too glib and ironic for her age (think Juno), and would probably be utterly obnoxious if the lovely and talented Ramirez didn’t work hard to make her sympathetic.

In fact, the daughter forms a sharp contrast with her mom, a clueless party girl who’s never there for her child and seems to think she’s more professionally accomplished than she really is. When, for example, Grace is called on to run the seafood restaurant for a few days while her boss is out of town, she’s only saved from outright disaster by the intervention of a handyman named Mission Impossible (Mexican star Eugenio Derbez), who displays previously undisclosed cooking skills.

[T]hanks to an engaging cast, it's hard not to root for these characters.

Guadalajara-born Riggen’s previous film, the 2007 feature Under the Same Moon (La Misma Luna), was a charming tale of a boy leaving his home in Mexico to find his mother, who was working as a domestic in Los Angeles. That production and this one confirm Riggen as a filmmaker who can spot talented young actors and tell a smoothly structured, easily digestible story with an emotionally satisfying climax.

But Riggen needs to rein in her penchant for plotlines whose resolutions can be seen coming from a mile away. That’s certainly the case with Girl in Progress, whose basic theme of “life as a succession of rites of passage” allows every plot point to be wrapped up with a neat little bow.

Grace (Eva Mendez) and Ansiedad (Cierra Ramirez) in GIRL IN PROGRESS.

© 2011 Pantelion Films/Bob Akester

Eva Mendes as Grace and Cierra Ramirez as Ansiedad in 'Girl in Progress.'

And yet, thanks to the engaging cast, it’s hard not to root for these characters, especially because of how their predicaments are universalized. The rebellious teen daughter. The single mother trying to find her way in the world. We know these people; some might be in our own families. Overly sentimentalized and obvious it may be, but Girl in Progress has the ring of truth about it. And that’s enough.

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