Elizabeth Olsen and Dakota Fanning in Very Good Girls distributed by Tribeca Film
“Very Good Girls,” a film opening in theaters on Friday but available in VOD since June 24, is quite good, just not very good all the time. So used to the so-called “Coming of Age” scenario told from the male point of view, writer-director Naomi Foner has refreshingly approached it from the other side where virginity is representative of innocence and sexual experience a mistaken indication of maturity rather than the raunch and bodily fluids so prevalent in films about teenage boys.
“Very Good Girls” tells the story of two best friends, Lilly (Dakota Fanning) and Gerry (Elizabeth Olson), during an eventful summer before each will be headed in different directions to college. Still virgins, they are determined to come of age prior to the end of summer. Complicating matters considerably is David (Boyd Holbrook), the young man Gerry has her sights on, only has eyes for Lilly. David, a talented artist making ends meet with a number of odd jobs, attracted Gerry’s eye when she and Lilly ended their day at the beach at an ice cream stand he managed. After that first encounter, Gerry determinedly hunts him down like so much prey; he, in turn, has devised clever ways to gain the attention Lilly.
Gerry, who zeroes in on a polite but distant David, is unaware that Lilly and he have started an affair. Lilly is uncomfortable keeping secrets from her best friend and even more ill at ease with the prospect of hurting her, especially when Gerry’s beloved father dies unexpectedly of a heart attack. Lilly’s own family is in upheaval as her mother has banned her husband from their home and children when she discovered that he had been carrying on an affair in his home office. Lilly is ill equipped to handle the complexities of Gerry’s desires and her loss when she is coming to grips with her own issues. When she sends David to pay condolences to Gerry, Lilly shuts down when Gerry claims an intimate connection with David, refusing to listen to or believe David’s side of the story. All, he proclaims, would be set aright if Lilly would be honest with Gerry. But doing so, Lilly is convinced, would end their lifelong friendship and she would rather sacrifice David than reveal the truth.
Both girls are under the belief that the first sexual encounter is a meaningful milestone and to a certain extent they may be right. Although Gerry appears flighty and needy, she has a supportive parents and a warm home life. Losing her virginity is more something to be checked off a list; David is yet another flirtation whose meaning is temporarily heightened by the loss of her father. Lilly, more conflicted, lives in a rational world where there are rules and consequences and decorum but not much emotion or warmth; her father’s affair and her mother’s reaction have thrown her into a tailspin making her incapable of seeing how much she means to David and vice versa.
Foner has done a really excellent job of developing the characters of Lilly, Gerry and David. It is no coincidence, nor is it particularly subtle, that Lilly’s bedroom is dominated by a poster of “Jules and Jim,” the iconic film by Francois Truffaut in which two best friends love the same woman. Gerry’s character is by far the better developed as one can easily see who she is by where she comes from. Playfully swatting away her bohemian parents, their influence is clear in her ability to pursue what she wants and blink back rejection. She is loved and she knows it. Elizabeth Olson has taken Gerry to heart and given her a rare combination of insouciance and vulnerability. Lilly’s character, not as well described on paper, is developed before our eyes by the performing genius of Dakota Fanning. Her pain and confusion are laid bare for all to see, even more impressive because the actors portraying her parents, Ellen Barkin and Clark Gregg, have been given nothing emotionally and in return give nothing back. This lapse, unfortunately, is probably a combination of poorly conceived characters and direction and prevent the film from being “very.”
Boyd Holbrook as David has the unenviable task of portraying “the object” but capably infuses his character with warmth and sensitivity. In other roles, Richard Dreyfuss was clearly having a good time diving into the role of Gerry’s hippie father, a man who unapologetically never left the late 60s of his youth. Demi Moore plays his wife in what is little more than a cameo appearance. Rounding out the cast is Peter Sarsgaard, Lilly’s boss, playing yet another creepy old guy lusting after the high school student. His screen time, as limited as it is, reminds you of what a terrific actor he is, especially in what seems to be in this niche specialty, something Foner, his mother-in-law, must have realized when creating the role.
Had Foner been able to flesh out the emotional backstories of Lilly’s parents, given more depth to the breakdown of their marriage and found a way for the actors to connect the film would have been like the title – very good. Without better development, the multiple betrayals – Lilly of Gerry and Lilly’s parents of each other and their family – would have resonated far more. Still, “Very Good Girls” is a good film and worth spending time with.
Opening Friday July 25 at the Laemmle Music Hall. Also available on VOD.