A middle-school version of Mean Girls and darn close to every other PG-rated girl-power movie you or your daughters are likely to see this follows four brash eighth-graders as they have a sleepover to wear dress-up clothes freeze their bras fantasize about boys dance madly and celebrate their graduation to high school. They see themselves as social outcasts but while one (Kallie Flynn Childress) is short and plump. the others could be cheerleaders at any real school--Spy Kids' Alexa Vega (who gives the party and is the film's star) Mika Boorem and Scout Taylor-Compton. (Does anybody still name their kid "Jane" these days?) But just when they're being good girls and staying home as mom (Best in Show's delightfully edgy Jane Lynch) has demanded a snooty rival (the statuesque blonde Sara Paxton) and her coterie challenge them to a slightly risqué scavenger hunt. That involves getting into a bar and ordering Sex on the Beach cocktails changing the display in an Old Navy window (one of many shameless plugs) and escaping from a dimwit security guard by driving a tiny lime-green electric car that is the ugliest movie vehicle ever. In a surprisingly erotic scene for a PG movie Vega--wearing a tight red party dress with a plunging neckline that amply reveals why she's been having "growing pains"--sneaks into a "hot" boy's bathroom to steal his boxers watching from the shower as he removes them. Just in case you thought this all would lead to a teen reenactment of Psycho Sleepover ends with the usual sentimental empowerment lessons learned and friendships sealed. And the chubby girl even finds a boyfriend who likes brownies more than carrots.
The film's three casting directors all worked overtime to find young actresses amazingly reminiscent of slightly older girl-role-model favorites. Vega conveys the same mixture of insecurity and self-confidence as Lindsay Lohan in Mean Girls and even has the same expressions. With her moon-round face long tangle of dark hair and glowing smile she might also remind adults of a teen Bonnie Raitt. But she's maturing so fast she already seems too old for this part physically and temperamentally. There are moments in fact when the actress acts dismissive of the story's clunky derivative plot mechanics. Meanwhile Boorem is warmly Kirsten Dunst-like and Paxton such an amazing reincarnation of Reese Witherspoon that I'll look for her in a Legally Blonde sequel when she hits 18. This is all good by the way - most everyone appears to relish her chance in the spotlight. But even better are the two offbeat comic actors who play Vega's parents--Lynch and the portly Jeff Garlin (of Curb Your Enthusiasm) as the clueless dad. The film reaches a moment of Freaky Friday hilarity with Vega discovers enthusiastic mom Lynch wiggling and writhing at a dance club. "Yeah older lady shakin' her boo-tay " the deejay announces as Vega cringes. It's a great movie parent-child moment.
Director Joe Nussbaum got his start in Hollywood with the cult favorite short George Lucas in Love and this marks his feature debut. He gets the train to the station in time so to speak but the pace is so chop-chop quick that a lot of promising comic and romantic scenes go underdeveloped amid the editing pace. And unfortunately Nussbaum kept in all the corny scenes involving an unfunny security guard (Steve Carell) who harasses the girls. There also are a lot of tiresome close-ups and two-shots - this could (and doubtlessly will) play on TV with little lost. So unlike the cast the direction isn't pretty. But writer Elisa Bell however does embellish the formulaic plot with some unusual--sometimes even downright surreal--dialogue. I'm still trying to figure out for instance what Sam Huntington as Vega's slightly older brother (a Giovanni Ribisi look-alike by the way) means when he tells her "Go be a teenager. It ends too soon. And it gets replaced by ribbons and lampshades." Huh?
Packed with too much goodness and determined to push its platform of paranormal events A Rumor of Angels is an overwrought drama about friendship grief and the spiritual rebirth of a boy and his eccentric recluse neighbor. Twelve-year-old James Neubauer his father Nathan and his stepmother Mary are spending their summer vacation in the small seaside town where the boy's mother died years earlier in a car accident near a local bridge. Because James has been traumatized by her death he has problems connecting with his often absent father and new mother. When James wanders onto the property of eccentric elderly neighbor Maddy Bennett who lives in a decrepit shingled house overlooking the ocean she scares the boy by firing a rifle in his direction. After a showdown with the Neubauers Maddy succeeds in hiring James to rebuild and paint her fence. An unlikely friendship ensues when James becomes a kind of surrogate son to Maddy who lost her own son in the Vietnam War and the stern but caring Maddy becomes mother surrogate the boy so desperately needs. Maddy also beset by grief teaches James about the power of remembrance and imagination and the possibility of angels and communicating with those long gone. James also learns about the importance of family love friendship and spiritual awakening.
Vanessa Redgrave is terrific as usual as the eccentric recluse Maddy giving yet another powerful performance that dazzles delights and soars beyond the limitations of the character as written. Trevor Morgan is fine if not memorable as James. Catherine McCormack as the stepmother Ron Livingston as a slacker uncle and veteran actor George Coe as Maddy's oldest friend also turn in serviceable performances. Only Ray Liotta so memorable in edgier meatier roles like those in Something Wild and Goodfellas or the more recent Hannibal and Blow is out of his element as a frustrated often absent dad. In fact most of the actors are chewed up by the gorgeous evocative Nova Scotia locales that brilliantly stand in for the Maine village.
Director Peter O'Fallon's biggest obstacle in A Rumor of Angels appears to be his own screenplay which he co-wrote and adapted from the very old inspirational novel Thy Son Liveth. Most filmgoers won't get beyond the film's pile-up of hokum about communication with the dead. Also the horror and mystery elements that A Rumor of Angels plants early on dissipate into a cinematic sermon about familiar family values and faith. The messages may be poignant but the drama sending them isn't. O'Fallon relies instead on lovely cinematography scenes suggestive of paranormal reality (those lights those angels) and a soundtrack rich in classical music--all at the expense of delivering a credible story with flesh and blood characters who actually sound like they just might be real New Englanders. His direction is style over substance scenery over psychological truths.