Very Good Girls: Sundance Review

Elizabeth Olsen and Dakota Fanning
Dakota Fanning and Elizabeth Olsen are wasted in veteran screenwriter Naomi Foner's underwhelming directing debut.

Dakota Fanning and Elizabeth Olsen play best friends who fall for the same guy in this drama from screenwriter-turned-director Naomi Foner.

PARK CITY – Aside from being Jake and Maggie Gyllenhaal’s mother, Naomi Foner is best known as the screenwriter of Sidney Lumet’s underappreciated 1988 drama Running on Empty. She makes a limp directing debut with another intimate reflection on family, friendship and coming of age, Very Good Girls, which is set in contemporary Brooklyn but informed by the same throwback countercultural sensibility as that earlier work.

Starring Dakota Fanning and Elizabeth Olsen as best friends determined to lose their virginity in their final summer before going off to college, the film rings false at almost every turn despite its naturalistic performances. Lacking emotional substance, it comes off as far too studied in its subdued intensity.

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Lilly (Fanning) and Gerri (Olsen) are first glimpsed taking a naked dip at Brighton Beach in broad daylight. Why? Back on the boardwalk afterwards, they encounter David (Boyd Holbrook), a twentysomething ice-cream vendor, sullen but cute, who ends up being the object of both girls’ affections.

A kind of Brooklyn Banksy, David plasters his photo-based graffiti art all over the neighborhood while yearning to take off and see Paris for real instead of just looking at pictures. Cementing the swoony artificiality of this character, he even has Lilly read a couple of lines of Sylvia Plath before their first kiss.

The two girls’ families couldn’t be more different. Lilly’s mother Norma (Ellen Barkin) is an uptight WASP shrink and her father Edward (Clark Gregg) is a doctor, both practicing out of their handsome home. That is until Edward gets caught canoodling with a patient. Gerri’s folks are of the crunchy granola variety; her dad Danny (Richard Dreyfuss) is a jolly old lefty, and his wife Kate (Demi Moore) is a soulful earth mother.

Not one of these four has much of a character to play, and Moore in particular is barely there. But they serve mainly to reflect aspects of the protagonists or to provide elements for them to chafe against.

Reserved and introspective, Yale-bound Lilly has a summer job as a river cruise guide, with a boss (Foner’s son-in-law Peter Sarsgaard) who makes unsubtle advances. Gerri is more frisky and fun, dressing like a Halloween hippie and singing whimsical folk compositions at a local open mic night.

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Her songs and others used in the film are by Jenny Lewis, who also is represented by a poster of her former band, Rilo Kiley, on Lilly’s bedroom wall. But that bid to add a veneer of hipster coolness is unpersuasive in a film that seems frozen in time.

Its biggest problem is that when the conflict arises -- David only has eyes for Lilly, while Gerri thinks she’ll be the one to land him -- neither girl behaves in ways that are credible for 21st century New Yorkers. Lilly offers up her virginity to him on the garage floor but keeps this news from Gerri. Out of guilt, she curtails their trysts after learning that Gerri’s family has suffered a tragedy, sending David over to console her.

The predictable pattern of their friendship being broken by lies and withheld secrets, only to be repaired at the end, plays itself out with a numbing lack of urgency. Only a scene in which Lilly confesses the reasons for her rift with Gerri to her father summons something approaching poignancy.

Fanning, as always, suggests an interior life beneath her luminous delicacy. But none of the performances is memorable, including the miscast Olsen’s. While cinematographer Bobby Bukowski gives the film a warm summery sheen, the dramatic structure is so soft it melts.

Venue: Sundance Film Festival (Premieres)
Cast: Dakota Fanning, Elizabeth Olsen, Boyd Holbrook, Demi Moore, Richard Dreyfuss, Ellen Barkin, Clark Gregg, Kiernan Shipka, Peter Sarsgaard
Production companies: Herrick Entertainment, Groundswell Productions
Director-screenwriter: Naomi Foner
Producers: Norton Herrick, Michael London, Mary Jane Skalski, Janice Williams
Executive producers: Peter Graves, Lee Clay, Hawk Koch, Gale Anne Hurd
Director of photography: Bobby Bukowski
Production designer: Sharon Lomofsky
Music: Jenny Lewis
Costume designer: David Tabbert
Editor: Andrew Hafitz
Sales: CAA
No rating, 93 minutes.

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