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GIRL

Review by Michael Jacobson

Stars:  Dominique Swain, Sean Patrick Flanery, Summer Phoenix, Tara Reid, Selma Blair
Director:  Jonathan Kahn
Audio:  Dolby Surround 2.0
Video:  Widescreen 1.85:1 Anamorphic Transfer, Standard 1.33:1
Studio:  Columbia Tri Star
Features:  Commentary Track, Featurette, Trailer, Talent Files
Length:  99 Minutes
Release Date:  August 29, 2000

Film *1/2

When I first opened the envelope and the DVD for Girl slid out, I looked at the cover and groaned.  It shows Dominique Swain looking all goo-goo eyed up at Sean Patrick Flanery, who, with his unkempt hair, five o’clock shadow and microphone looked like second runner up in the national Kurt Cobain look-alike contest.  Now, here comes the part where I say, “but then I put the disc on and was surprised at how good the movie really was," right?  But life doesn’t always follow the script.

Girl is yet another coming-of-age teenage story that reeks of being made by people who are too old to really remember what being a kid was like.  Correction—a LOT of people who are too old:  there are no less than eleven producers credited!  Though it tries, it’s not very funny, and that’s not even counting when it tries to milk cheap laughs out of tragic things like bulimia (one of the characters stares at the decrepit, skeletal figure of a boy in an anti-heroin poster and ponders, “Do I look fat?”).  The acting, for the most part, is painfully thin.  Ms. Swain, who’s been in at least two movies I loved, Adrian Lyne’s Lolita and John Woo’s Face/Off, has always come across on screen as decidedly bland to me.  It’s a little worse when she has to carry the entire film on her shoulders as she does here.  This time, there’s no capable veteran like Jeremy Irons to help her along.

She plays Andrea, a typical teenage girl for these kinds of films.  She’s an A student with a bright future, but her obsession with losing her virginity leads her to temporarily embrace the life of a groupie when she falls for Todd (Flanery).  Todd is a singer in a popular local band.  He’s got some talent and looks, but no personality whatsoever.  Naturally, why wouldn’t a girl who’s just been accepted to an Ivy League school risk throwing it all away to get a little bit of attention from him?  He can even inspire her to say lines like, “his soul condensed in the air above me and poured down into my hands”.  (The movie is funniest when it tries to be serious).

I’m always a little wary of films with a lot of voiceover—it always strikes me like the filmmakers didn’t really know how to get their story across in the action and the dialogue—and this movie is about 90% voiceover.  Most of it is used for cheap comedic effect, as what Andrea does is often in direct contradiction with what she says.  Which is true enough sometimes, but come ON, we got the point the first ten times.  Or, her voiceover is used in setting up jokes we can see coming a mile away.  She goes shopping for a dress to wear to the club, and comes out with this outrageous looking cow-patterned one.  “I felt like an individual”, she informs us.  Have you guessed already that the next shot shows her at the club with women all around her wearing the same dress?

To make matters even worse, the film fumbles along looking for comedy until it plummets into a huge black hole at the end:  the suicide of one of the main characters.  I guess this was meant to put everything that happened before into some kind of perspective.  It didn’t quite work, especially when the filmmakers tried to parlay THAT into another cheap laugh. 

There are just too many films out there about teenagers that don’t have a clue, and it makes me wonder who they’re supposed to be for.  I personally think the movie that got it most right was Welcome to the Dollhouse, but even some of the more recent raunch comedies like Can’t Hardly Wait or American Pie had a little more truth in the margins than this one.  Films like Girl focus on and revel in the awkwardness of being a teenager, as though there was nothing more to it than that.  It makes for a rather squirmy viewing experience.

There were a couple of aspects of the film that I liked.  Most of the film’s original songs were penned by the director, Jonathan Kahn (I wonder if that’s why he signed on for the project?), and they are actually quite good.  So much so, that had I been in the executive in charge, I would have pushed the soundtrack a little more.  The film’s two ‘singers’, Flanery and Tara Reid, both do an excellent job of lip-synching, even though the voices seem a little mismatched (Flanery’s character in particular sounds like just another Eddie Vedder clone).  Most of the supporting cast, including Reid and Selma Blair do an admirable job without a lot of material to work with.  And, despite the tediousness of the voiceovers, there was one line I found clever and memorable:  “You can always tell your good friends by how much they resent you.”

But the real highlight of the picture for me was Summer Phoenix, whom I’d first seen in a small but admirable acting job in SLC Punk!.  I thought she showed amazing promise then, and I think so even more here, as she gives a wonderful comic performance in a supporting role.  She may be no more than one good picture away from stardom.

In the end, however, we’re supposed to view the whole movie as a kind of rites-of-passage learning experience for Andrea.  But nothing helps it along:  not the script, which lacks substance and insight, not the bland performances by the two leads, not the half-hearted attempts at making one or two serious points, and certainly not the failed attempts at humor.  Life and love CAN be scary and funny when you’re a teenager, but these filmmakers have failed to really delve in and discover what makes it so, settling instead for line after line that must have gotten snickers during the production meetings, but certainly not from any audience.  This is one Girl that SHOULD have been interrupted.

Video ****

Poorer films don’t mean lesser quality transfers where Columbia Tri Star is concerned, and I have to give them credit:  this disc looks great.  No image complaints at all:  no compression evidence, no softness, no grain, and no dirt or debris on the print.  The color schemes are excellent throughout, from some of the more subdued outdoors made to look cooler with higher concentrations of blues and grays, to the many club scenes which feature dynamic, loud, and widely contrasting bright colors against often dark backgrounds.  These come across with no bleeding or image compromising.  Detail is strong throughout, even from front to back in deeper angled shots.  Being that the director is a musician himself, he seemed to instinctively understand how to create and capture the nightclub image on film, and this first rate transfer preserved his work.

Audio **

Surprisingly, the audio is not as good as I would have hoped.  For a film featuring music as a key element, this Dolby Surround mix completely lacks any sense of dynamic range.  When a band rocks out on stage, for example, it comes across at the same audio level as simple spoken dialogue.  The mono signal to the rear speakers is a little more active than some straight surround tracks, particularly in club scenes where crowd noises, and sometimes the music itself, finds their way to the back of the scenery and rests comfortably behind you.  There’s no problems with the soundtrack in terms of clarity or noise, and is a perfectly adequate listening experience, but the lack of range compels me to only rate it as only a fair one.

Features **1/2

There is a theatrical trailer for starters, followed by a VERY short making-of featurette.  It gets around to the major cast members, but I don’t think anybody but Ms. Swain gets to say more than a sentence or two.  Then there is a commentary track by director Kahn along with Dominique Swain, which is not a particularly good one.  Swain has so little to say, you’ll forget she’s there for long periods of time, and Kahn offers little more than “this is this” and “that person is so-and-so”, and “hey, there’s my old frat house”.  Either through modesty or boredom, he didn’t comment on his own music as much as I would have liked—as I mentioned, I thought the songs were one of the film’s strong points.  Overall, the track is sparse, with too many gaps, and not a lot said in the way of quality information.

Summary:

Girl is just another teenage coming-of-age story that fails to get it really right, and as such, fails to provide much in the way of entertainment as well.  I’d recommend it only if you’re a die hard fan of one of the lead actors, or if you’d just like to hear some cool music that you’re not likely to hear anywhere else.