‘Fan Girl’: LAFF Review

Courtesy of Literally Films
The young star outshines the material.

Kiernan Shipka toplines a comedy as a teen with film-school aspirations and a major musical crush.

It will come as no surprise to fans of Mad Men that Kiernan Shipka, the 15-year-old actress who played Sally Draper for seven seasons, holds her own as a big-screen lead. Trading period drama for contemporary comedy, she brings ace comic timing to uninspired material in Fan Girl, a genial rehash of high-school clichés.

With an ear attuned to Millennial-speak and an eye for the pervasiveness of social media, screenwriter Gina O’Brien has given tired tropes a skin-deep update. The involvement of pop punk act All Time Low as the title character’s raison d’être and contributor of much of the soundtrack lends a spirited edge and some sort of connective tissue to a movie that loses focus as it proceeds, jumping from one dropped plotline to the next.

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At the center of the feature, which premiered at the Los Angeles Film Festival, is Shipka’s smart suburban teen, Telulah Farrow — a terrific name that’s made especially memorable by the way costar Joshua Boone enunciates it. As Darvan, Telulah’s partner for a film-class project, Boone is required to play the clown, academic ineptitude and stupid slapstick included, and manages somehow to maintain his dignity. As Telulah’s mom, Meg Ryan is in pretty much the same boat. When she isn’t posing goofily for selfies in anticipation of her Facebook plunge, she’s reminiscing with an old friend (Bill Sage) and landing in hot water for it.

A sophomore with film-school aspirations, Telulah has devoted long hours to making a birthday video for her No. 1 crush, All Time Low frontman Alex Gaskarth, and is now on a tight deadline to finish a short film for class. But the supposed urgency gets lost in the mix. The jumbled plot works clumsily to tie together Telulah’s filmmaking talent and her ATL devotion through the event of the band’s upcoming concert in her unnamed town (the movie was shot on Long Island). Whether the fault lies with the screenplay, Paul Jarrett’s direction or Phyllis Housen’s editing, the herky-jerky structure leaves plot threads dangling or else resolved offscreen, not at all or in perfunctory fashion. This is especially true of Telulah’s attraction to a dreamy new classmate (Pico Alexander).

There’s a nice bit of humor, though, in the way she affects an English accent whenever she chats with the new boy. The film clicks, too, in the sardonic chemistry between Telulah and best friend Jamie (Moonrise Kingdom’s Kara Hayward) as they parse texts and degrees of chill. Yet while Shipka and Hayward’s wry delivery is always engaging, the movie’s humor is hit-and-miss. Case in point: PA announcements by the school principal offer a mild absurdist kick and lose steam well before the gag runs its course.

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Audiences in the protagonist’s age group might find something fresh here, but mainly it’s déjà vu all over again: the obligatory rundown of cliques, the batshit crazy teachers (the exception being the film teacher played by 30 Rock regular Scott Adsit, although he is given to announcing, “I encourage you to IMDb me”). A skateboarder named Hashtag (Danny Flaherty) serves as a watered-down latter-day Jeff Spicoli, while the de rigueur mean-girl contingent gets a rapid refresh, the head meanie (Nicole Coulon) wielding her Instagram-ready cameraphone with sadistic glee.

The film is ever alert to the online/IRL duality of teen lives. Cinematographer Brian Burgoyne mixes formats to include phone footage and Telulah’s videos, but the POV of the culminating film-within-a-film footage that Telulah supposedly shot and also appears in makes no sense.

Though the material hits its share of false notes, Shipka’s performance never does. Whether Telulah is delivering self-conscious ironic judgments, being a brat or rhapsodizing tearfully over Alex, the actress makes her a living, breathing work-in-progress — one whose favorite interjection is “Throw up!” and who can be as sweetly awkward as she is self-aware.

Production companies: Literally Films in association with Rosetta Films and Filament Prods.
Cast: Kiernan Shipka, Kara Hayward, Meg Ryan, Scott Adsit, Joshua Boone, Nicole Coulon, Pico Alexander, Danny Flaherty, Beanie Feldstein, Tess Frazer, Bill Sage, Catherine Curtin, Alex Gaskarth
Director: Paul Jarrett
Screenwriter: Gina O’Brien
Producers: Paul Jarrett, Nick Huston, Adam Spielberg
Executive producers: Jonathan Gray, Gina O’Brien
Director of photography: Brian Burgoyne
Production designer: Alexandra Koucher
Costume designer: Amy Bradshaw
Editor: Phyllis Housen
Casting director: Patricia DiCerto, Christine Kromer

No rating, 101 minutes

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