“Being a kid is stupid. I’m moving on,” announces Ansiedad, a spunky teenager who decides to write her own coming-of-age story in the funny and heartbreaking new comedy, Girl in Progress.
Adapted from a screenplay written by Hiram Martinez, the latest film from Pantelion Films—the first major Latino Hollywood studio—opens just in time for Mother’s Day on Friday, May 11, 2012 and represents a new wave of cinema targeting the Hispanic movie-going population. But the film’s quirky, yet honest, take on serious issues many teens face when going through adolescence (or dealing with parents who still act like they are) makes it universally appealing for all audiences.
Partly inspired by her English teacher at school (Patricia Arquette, TV’s Medium) who introduces the class to the concept of a “coming-of-age story” in literature, and partly fueled by her desire to grow up and distance herself from her immature, self-involved single mom (Eva Mendes, The Other Guys), Ansiedad (Cierra Ramirez) begins mapping out her growing-up story in a flowchart on her bedroom wall.
Best friend Tavita (Raini Rodriguez, Prom) is also helping out with the strategy, as they decide that Anisedad must transition from good to bad in order to quickly come of age. That begins with joining the chess club and winning some matches, followed by a total image makeover. Befriending the popular girl in school comes next so that Ansiedad, which interestingly enough means “anxiety” in Spanish, will then get invited to the wild parties which will then put her in closer proximity to the next major step in her transformative journey.
And sadly, that includes the young protagonist possibly losing her virginity. So the two friends plot for the teen to sleep with the most insensitive, “baddest” guy they can find. “It’s how we get our wings,” the usually sensible Ansiedad explains very matter-of-factly to Tavita. “So now, I’m free to fly and I hop on the bus to Adultville.” Only later will Ansiedad realize the true gravity of the steps she’s planned to speed up maturity in her misguided story.
Film director Patricia Riggen, who admits she also had a rebellious streak and conflict with her mother in her youth, believes that the PG-13-rated Girl in Progress—even with its mature thematic elements, including drinking and sexual content involving teens—can still do something good for its audience.
“I like movies about emotions, and Girl in Progress had the potential to be really funny and moving,” she explains. Every woman I know has a complicated relationship with her mother, including me! That’s what really drew me in.”
Still a relative newcomer in filmmaking, the forty-something’s first feature film, Under the Same Moon (La Misma Luna), earned a 15-minute standing ovation when it premiered at the 2007 Sundance Film Festival), while her 2011 Disney TV movie, Lemonade Mouth, debuted last spring to very strong ratings.
“After La Misma Luna,” she says, “every Hispanic-flavored script in Hollywood was sent my way. But I’m not really interested in movies just because they are Hispanic. I’m interested in great storytelling.”
The native of Mexico, wife and mother of a young daughter fully embraced translating these lives in progress to the big screen, showing what happens when a mother doesn’t give the attention her daughter so desperately needs. Despite its serious subject matter, however, Riggen says she “didn’t want it to feel like a typical dark indie movie” and worked purposefully to paint the picture with shades of hope.
I spoke with Riggen recently and asked her more about the making of Girl in Progress, how she was able to balance mature thematic elements with positive messages and why she thinks this film can promote healthy dialogue between mothers and their teen daughters this Mother’s Day weekend.
Was it hard to balance the heaviness of the issues that are dealt with in Girl in Progress with its quirkiness and comedy? It seems you were able to make a film about serious subject matters very hopeful.
The first mission of a movie is to entertain and give us a good time because that’s why people go to the movies. I was trying to be sure that I’m making an entertaining, fun movie, but at the same time I’m also very interested in always trying to change things and help by spreading out good messages through my work. So [Girl in Progress] I like very much because it speaks to females. It has a lot of underlying themes: single motherhood, young pregnancy, bullying. But I always like to balance it. I don’t know if it’s hard; it just comes natural. It’s just something that I’m interested in . . . social subjects, and I’m interested in entertaining. I like to make people laugh, and I like to move people, too.
How was directing Girl in Progress different from your earlier filmmaking experiences?
This was a difficult movie, I have to say. I directed a movie called Under the Same Moon. That was my first feature film, and it was about a mother and a child separated by the border. That was first generation immigrants. Now we’re talking second and third generation [in Girl in Progress]. So they’re American, these girls. It’s not a boy; it’s a teenage girl. But the interesting thing is that even if they live in the same house, they’re separated. I like the idea of how they will come together again at the end. I was a rebellious teenager myself. I had a lot of conflict with my mom, and I have a great relationship with her now. And I just like the idea that you know after all there’s really a lot of love on both sides, and how can they find each other.
I am a mother, too, now. So truthfully [Girl in Progress] really allowed me now to see the other point of view, because I never understood my mother’s point of view. I could understand Ansiedad’s role really well, but now the role of the mother I can understand even if [my daughter is] four. I already know how hard it is, how worried you are and the choices one makes. So for me, it’s also a learning experience, exploring experience.
Is it good for young moviegoers to see the consequences from bad choices played out in a film like Girl in Progress?
Lately when I’ve been screening the movie . . . because you don’t know what you have until you make it and then people’s reactions really tell you what kind of movie you have. And what I’ve been noticing is the number of hands of single moms that were raised by single moms. It’s such a big, I guess, phenomenon. This single mom situation is widespread. And unfortunately it repeats itself. It’s a cycle. And the movie is about that, too. This young girl, in her search for attention and love, is going to make the same mistake that the mom did once. So I find it . . . let’s say interesting for young girls to look at, because it’s really exploring that issue. The other thing I’ve noticed now that I’m screening is that girls are really connecting to the movie, and I think because . . . it’s talking about something that matters to them and that happens to them.
You don’t see many films coming out from Hollywood right now like Girl in Progress.
I see the female audience still really underserved in Hollywood. I don’t find a lot of movies that speak of female issues. They’re hard to make, they’re hard to finance, they give us tiny budgets when we make them. And if on top of that you throw in a Latino character instead of an Anglo character, it’s even worse. But this movie’s really not about the Latino experience; it’s about the female experience. And there are very few movies out there that touch on this subject matter. So once they come along, I think it’s very important for women to see them, to support them, because then we will have more because the power is in the audience to decide what’s out there. It truly is. I mean, I’m so excited that this wave of movies that are being watched by women are making so much money, because that’s just proving to Hollywood once and for all that the female audience needs the same amount of movies that speak to them. They’re very rare.
Was it always planned that Girl in Progress would release in theaters on Mother’s Day weekend?
I’m very excited by the date that they gave us. The Mother’s Day weekend is perfect. It was not planned. It’s a complete coincidence. But it’s a sign, because when I was shooting the movie, I had this Mexican party in it and I decided that it would be Mother’s Day that day. And I have that cake that says, “Happy Mother’s Day.” And so Grace is a mom, and it’s about moms and daughters. So I thought that was you know . . . it’s organic. I’ll make it Mother’s Day. And Grace is partying with this guy instead of being there for her daughter. And now that we get Mother’s Day weekend, I’m like 'yay!' It is a very good sign that it’s the right movie for the weekend. This movie is the right movie for female audiences for that weekend.
Toward the beginning of the film Anisedad says, “Being a kid is stupid. I’m moving on!” Do you think that that line is really symbolic of our times and that kids are growing up too fast these days?
I think so. It is symbolic of our times, right? I love that the guy that wrote the script, Hiram Martinez, has very clever lines throughout. Ansiedad has very funny lines. But it was a challenge, the script, because in many ways we are playing with a genre. It’s kind of a story within a story, right? She reads and watches coming-of-age movies and decides to create a coming-of-age story for herself, but we are [the audience] watching a coming-of-age movie. I like the end with Patricia Arquette when she says we’re probably all coming of age at any age because each of these characters is having their own journey and their own maturity moment or changing moment within the film.
Cierra Ramirez really captures the struggle going on inside of Ansiedad. What was it like working with her?
I think she is a real find. We looked for that girl a lot. We knew that we needed a really great Latina young actress. Cierra is from Houston, and she sent out a clip and it was actually when she was 11. She performed a song at the Apollo Theatre and was singing like Aretha Franklin. And I said I don’t know if she acts, but she certainly is really, really special and charismatic. She hadn’t acted in movies before, so when she arrived she was not doing well. That’s all I can say. She was scared. She didn’t have any idea what she was doing. She could not act. And so we trained her and coached her for a few days before we started. I was dying. I was thinking this is the biggest challenge of my career because you know it all falls with the actor. If the actor doesn’t perform, you know there’s nothing I can do. And we don’t have any other choice. We don’t have any other girl that has the charisma and the beauty and that is interesting to watch for two hours . . . because that’s also very important.
And then it just clicked. I just saw her getting into it, and she goes through all these characters within her character—from young little innocent to cruel, bullying type and hurt by her mom. Just all these things. And she just did really, really well. I was very, very excited.
Everyone else in the cast seemed to click as well.
One thing that I think that is interesting about this movie is that we are combining a Hollywood cast with a Hispanic cast, which is very rare. Normally we find like the Hispanic movies with all the Latino actors and then the American or the Anglo movies with the Hollywood type of cast. And it’s a combination of having Matthew Modine and Patricia Arquette with Eugenio Derbez, who’s a Mexican comedian, and Espinoza Paz, the guy singing in that party. He’s a very famous musician. And then Eva [Mendes], who I think really is just in the middle putting everything together, because she is part of both. She’s a Hollywood star and a Latina. I think it’s not two movies; it’s one movie. It’s very organic, and in a way I feel it’s representing this society that we live in. That’s how it is. It’s diverse, multicultural and we’re all there.
Pantelion Films is encouraging faith-based groups to see this film and talk about it afterward, using a special discussion guide. Do you think this is a good idea to use Girl in Progress as a teaching tool with teens and adults?
That’s the best gift that I can have. Even more important than box office for me is the fact that a movie can do good to people. I discovered that Under the Same Moon, for example, is used widely in schools in this country. They are using it everywhere from every state, every different age, in different contexts. It’s just people keep telling me how I watched it in class . . . they show it in class all the time. And it’s served purposes of people discussing immigration in a different way, discussing immigrants in a different way.
So now I’m very pleased that Girl in Progress has the opportunity. It provokes communication between moms and daughters. They just keep telling me how they come out of the movie. and they say I want to show this to my daughter or they go and want to talk to her because maybe they realize they haven’t been communicating or maybe something’s going on that they don’t know. And the same with daughters and their moms. I’ve heard stories like we talked for the first time in a long time after we saw the movie. And that just, that is really the best feeling that a movie can contribute to something good.
Sometimes I wonder why all this effort . . . if all of this is worth it. It’s very hard to make a film and to have a film career and to raise a daughter at the same time and the sacrifices one has to make in terms of time. So it’s very satisfying for me that [Girl in Progress] can be helpful.
Rated PG-13 for mature thematic elements, sexual content including crude references, and drinking—all involving teens—Girl in Progressopens wide in theaters on Friday, May 11, 2012. Click here for more information or to watch the trailer for Girl in Progress.