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In Girl Flu, the slight but warm and winning debut from writer-director Dorie Barton, a 12-year-old girl’s first period is the catalyst for copious tears, a few slammed doors, a black eye, a budding romance, some surreptitiously smoked pot and lots of frank, often funny talk of vaginas, tampons, cramps and blood. Donald Trump, the presumptive Republican presidential nominee who has repeatedly turned the female body and its functions into objects of disgust (ask Megyn Kelly or Hillary Clinton), would hate it.
Even for less juvenile and misogynistic viewers, a comedy about menstruation may be a hard sell. But following its premiere at the LA Film Festival, Girl Flu could pique curiosity in art house theaters and VOD platforms precisely because it takes a subject usually exploited for gross-out gags (see Superbad) or one-liners (“surfing the crimson wave” in Clueless) and makes it the main attraction. That’s the movie’s ticklish novelty.
Girl Flu is also the story of a mostly dutiful daughter and her fully difficult mother, the latest entry in a crowded subgenre that includes Mommie Dearest and the recent The Meddler, Postcards From the Edge, Precious, Terms of Endearment, Tumbleweeds, Anywhere But Here and numerous others. Responsible sixth grader Robin (Jade Pettyjohn) and her well-intentioned trainwreck of a mom, Jenny (Katee Sackhoff), have just moved from the San Fernando Valley to L.A.’s Eastside, and things aren’t going well. Not only is Robin (or “Baby Bird,” as Jenny calls her) the new girl at school — she’s also petite and preternaturally poised, making her an easy target for a bully (Isabella Acres) who’s twice her size (and looks about twice her age). The flighty, self-absorbed Jenny, who holds down a job as a waitress, is too busy getting high and rolling around with her long-suffering lover Arlo (an excellent Jeremy Sisto) to notice that her daughter may need some mothering.
Bird’s actually the one who does the mothering in their relationship, folding Jenny’s clothes and bringing her hangover-curing mugs of coffee in bed. “I’m never having children; I already have my mom,” she even declares at one point. But while she may be a pint-sized old soul, Bird still is a kid (as the director reminds us in an opening scene that finds her thrusting Ken and Barbie dolls together while mimicking pillow talk). So when a splash of red appears on Bird’s white jeans at a school picnic — in front of a mob of jeering classmates — she wants what anyone her age would: her mom.
Not much luck there. Used to treating Bird like some kind of small pet to be cuddled and cooed over but not truly cared for, Jenny offers a congratulatory hug and a bite of her chocolate ice cream, but zero guidance. And though she has no problem getting audibly hot and heavy with Arlo while her daughter tries to sleep in the next room, she doesn’t seem to have given Bird even the most basic lesson in female anatomy and reproductive health.
Luckily for Bird, and the audience, Jenny’s friend Lilli (Heather Matarazzo in a sly marvel of a supporting turn) shows up for an impromptu presentation on tampons, pads and period survival tactics. This kind of granular girl talk is hardly new, but watching the interplay of Lilli’s brisk compassion, Bird’s aghast reactions and Jenny’s flailing ineptitude, I was pretty sure the menstrual cycle had never been broken down onscreen with such bluntness and good humor. The scene should be shown in sex education classes.
The rest of Girl Flu, during which the onset of Bird’s puberty continues to upset the already tenuous equilibrium between her and Jenny, never rises to that level of bullseye comic sharpness. Still, the movie pulls you along thanks in large part to the charm of its cast (which also includes Judy Reyes as Lilli’s partner and Diego Josef as a sweet young skateboarder with a crush on Bird). It takes a while to buy Bird and Jenny as mother and daughter. Their early interactions have an overly emphatic, sitcom-y vibe, and Sackhoff at first seems to be acting in an entirely different movie, one with spit takes and pratfalls. But she grows on you. It’s nice to see the actress (so memorably fierce as Starbuck on Syfy’s Battlestar Galactica) in a non-action role, and as Jenny’s devil-may-care antics increasingly alienate the people she loves, Sackhoff digs beneath the kooky-mom clichés and comes up with something more interesting: a portrait of a woman struggling with her own ambivalence toward motherhood.
It’s Pettyjohn, though, who carries the movie. With her impish face and saucer eyes, she certainly looks like a child performer (she’s worked in TV since she was 8) — but she doesn’t act like one, and that’s a compliment. There’s nothing cloying or calculated about her earnestness, and no affected flounciness to her outbursts. Pettyjohn has both crack comic timing and an intuitive understanding of her character’s psychology; she shows us how Bird’s fury at getting her period isn’t some pre-teen hissy fit — it’s a cri de coeur from a girl who’s never had the luxury of being a kid, and resents getting dragged one step closer to adulthood.
Barton (an actress and story consultant) and DP Alice Brooks steer clear of the usual coming-of-age indie stylistic choices, which tend toward the harshly realistic or dreamily lyrical, relying on straightforward compositions and unspectacular L.A. locations to convey a sense of regular lives. It’s easy to wish Barton’s direction were more ambitious or her screenplay bolder, but there’s a sincerity here, a lack of pretension and a generosity of spirit that proves infectious; just as Bird and Jenny learn to forgive each other, you forgive Girl Flu its limitations — especially after it nails the climactic confrontation scene. “You’re ruining my life!” Jenny yells at Bird, who tearfully retorts, “I hate you so much,” and it’s a testament to the film that we sense their love in every word.
Venue: LA Film Festival (L.A. Muse)
Production company: Free Chicken Films
Writer-director: Dorie Barton
Cast: Katee Sackhoff, Jade Pettyjohn, Jeremy Sisto, Heather Matarazzo, Judy Reyes, Diego Josef, Isabella Acres
Producers: David K. Wilson, Jay Lowi
Executive producers: Paul Schiff, Richard Hull
Cinematographer: Alice Brooks
Editor: John Alan Thompson
Production designer: Alec Contestabile
Casting: Lindsey Weissmueller
Not rated, 93 minutes
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