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Approach Girl in Progress with Caution

Approach <i>Girl in Progress</i> with Caution

DVD Release Date: September 11, 2012
Theatrical Release Date: May 11, 2012 (limited)
Rating: PG-13 (for mature thematic elements, sexual content including crude references, and drinking—all involving teens)
Genre: Drama
Run Time: 90 min.
Director: Patricia Riggen
Actors: Eva Mendes, Cierra Ramirez, Patricia Arquette, Raini Rodriguez, Matthew Modine, Landon Liboiron

Art aimed at the younger set can easily fall short. Either the final result is sticky sweet in an attempt to be inoffensive, or, going to the other extreme, too dark in an effort to set itself apart from the squeaky-clean stereotype of children’s entertainment. Getting the right balance is the key to appealing to both kids and adults.

Girl in Progress is an example that offers both too much and too little to its core audience. Surprisingly mature in its depiction of teenage drinking and sexuality, the film also has a TV-movie quality that signals that, no matter how wrong the characters’ choices, everything will turn out alright in the end. A strange hybrid, Girl in Progress is alternately boring and envelope-pushing. On the plus side, the envelope-pushing is organic to the story of a young girl determined to come of age too soon. On the downside, the PG-13 material suggests things that might give pause to parents—even those parents who consider themselves open-minded about the challenges faced by teenagers.

Ansiedad (newcomer Cierra Ramirez) announces her intentions early in Girl in Progress: she’s tired of being a kid and watching the adults in her life—primarily her mom, Grace (Eva Mendes, The Other Guys), and her mom’s married boyfriend, Dr. Harford (Matthew Modine)—behave foolishly. “Being a kid is stupid, and I’m moving on,” she declares.

So when an English teacher (Patricia Arquette, TV’s Medium) introduces Ansiedad to coming-of-age stories—“the template for leaving your childhood behind”—Ansiedad takes an immediate interest.

She moves on by treating her best friend, Tavita (Raini Rodriguez, Prom), as disposable while she pursues a friendship with the school bad girl. Once she befriends that girl, Ansiedad surmises that she’ll be able to “possibly do drugs” and attend a party “where virginities are lost.” She declares that her deflowering is merely a rite of passage, or “metamorphosis” in the lingo of those coming-of-age stories she’s been reading.

To this point Girl in Progress has been intermittently witty, but its attempts to be edgy are held back by a bland approach to the filmmaking (not to mention a dreadful soundtrack). It’s hard not to wonder why the film wasn’t made for the small screen.

Things soon take a darker turn which, while not admirable in itself, takes Girl in Progress into territory that’s more unsettling—for its characters, and for its audience.

Ansiedad’s attempt to grow up too fast runs the gamut—smoking, drinking and sex, with the latter presented in unblinking fashion. Ansiedad asks a boy (Landon Liboiron), “Will you take my virginity?” He agrees, only to find out that Ansiedad hasn’t ever been kissed by a boy. Soon Ansiedad is handing the boy a condom, and we see the boy as he, just off camera, attempts to put on the condom.

The portrayal of Ansiedad’s blossoming sexuality and the willingness of a young man to provide her first sexual experience is bracing in its frankness, but it’s also uncomfortable to witness. There are lessons here for younger viewers about poor choices, and the danger of repeating the mistakes of our elders. But parents who choose to see this with their teenage children might be surprised at how direct the movie is. Could it lead to some good discussions about how to resist temptation? Sure. But the question is whether a film like Girl in Progress is necessary for such discussions, and whether exposure to the situations its lead character experiences might be too much for young viewers.

Hanging over Ansiedad’s choices is her mom’s own past—getting pregnant as a teen so she could leave an unhappy home—as well as her mom’s poor choices as a parent. It’s Ansiedad who has to point out her mother’s bad decision to date a married man. Surrounded by poor adult role models, Ansiedad carves out her own way forward, but that way is fraught with peril. It takes a wise teacher—the one admirable adult character in the film—to stand up to Ansiedad’s increasingly cynical view of life. “Am I letting you down?” Ansiedad barks to the teacher. “You’re letting yourself down,” the teacher responds.

Girl in Progress is a letdown early on, but it grows more interesting, not less, as it goes on. But it risks alienating its audience, playing its story safe for long stretches before pushing the boundaries of what younger viewers should be exposed to. Although the film raises valuable questions about the dangers of adolescence, Girl in Progress is likely to make many viewers uncomfortable.

This is one cautionary tale that should be approached with caution.


  • Language/Profanity: “Crap”; “sucks”; “a-s”; “dam-it”; “retard”; “oh my God”; “for God’s sake”; a middle finger extended.
  • Alcohol/Smoking/Drugs: Scenes of smoking and drinking, often by teens; Ansiedad arranges to have alcohol purchased; a woman is said to be an alcoholic; Ansiedad says she’s drinking and doing gateway drugs; a young girl is said to have taken pills.
  • Sex/Nudity: Kissing; Ansiedad plots to lose her virginity; cleavage; a boy tells a girl, “You’re not my girlfriend, no matter what we do in my basement”; crude reference to sex; Ansiedad hands a boy a condom; we see him bare-chested, from the waist up, while trying to put the condom on (off-screen), but the condom flies off; pictures of barely-clothed women; we seen Ansiedad in her bra; Ansiedad says she intends to have sex “soon,” because that’s what her mother did at a young age to get away from home.
  • Violence/Crime: References to wife-beating; stealing/theft.
  • Marriage/Religion: Grace has an affair with a married man; reference to a Greek demon.

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