The Fosters is the latest in ABC Family’s teen-oriented family dramas. ABC Family has strived to add more realism and positive representations of families and teenagers on shows like Switched at Birth and the suspense series Pretty Little Liars. The Fosters goes even further by showcasing a non-traditional family with multi-racial and LGBT family members. It also challenges previous representations of the foster system.
Callie Jacob (Maia Mitchell) gets out of juvenile hall and needs a place to stay. The foster system places her with Steff (Teri Polo) and Lena Foster (Sherri Saum). They are lesbian partners with three children of their own. They have adopted twins Jesus (Jake T. Austin) and Mariana (Cierra Ramirez). Steff also has a son, Brandon (David Lambert), from her previous marriage to Mike Foster (Danny Nucci). Tensions rise as Callie adjusts to her new surroundings and still tries to care for her brother Jude (Hayden Byerly). There’s also tension when Steff and Mike are assigned to be partners on the police force.
Created by Brad Bredeweg and Peter Paige (Queer as Folk) and executive produced by Jennifer Lopez, this series is not only completely addictive but it’s also heartfelt and emotional. Each episode explores the challenges of this non-traditional family, while still reaffirming their connection. Lena tells one of the children, "DNA doesn't make a family. Love does." This series is a testament to the unsung heroes in the foster system and the parents that adopt American orphans and children from broken homes. Most media representations focus on the horror stories but it’s nice to believe that there are families offering homes to disenfranchised youth.
The series is also a great blend of positive representations of multiple ethnicities and sexualities. Lena is bi-racial and the series explores her racial identity and complex relationship with her mother. The two twins are Latino and have ties to their Latin heritage despite being adopted. The show also doesn’t feel heavy handed in its portrayal of LGBT characters and storylines. Steff was married and had a son but she fell in love with her partner Lena and together they formed a family. The series explores her relationship with her parents and ex-husband. The series also introduces certain juvenile experimentation with the character of Jude. He tried on his mother’s clothes, he wears nail polish, and he likes a boy at school. His parents on the show, as well as the show’s writers, don’t judge this or play this up. Instead, they just portray it as natural.
The Fosters is inspiring. It brings together drama and heartfelt emotion while still maintaining a positive view of families and balanced and positive portrayals of ethnic and sexual minority groups. Luckily, episodes are available on Netflix and Hulu and the new season returns January 13.
The coming-of-age movie is nothing new of course; it's just that so often their subjects are sulky teen boys or man-children. Movies like Thirteen Ladies and Gentlemen the Fabulous Stains The Legend of Billie Jean and even Mean Girls are few and far between and even when they do appear like blips on a radar the casts are usually entirely white upper middle class teens. Girl in Progress is a lighter take on the adolescent turmoil and it's often heavy-handed and its characters seem flat but one thing it does with ease is put Latinas front and center without any sort of back-patting or race-related teachable moments. That's not to say Girl in Progress doesn't occasionally dip into Lifetime movie territory though.
Girl in Progress stars Cierra Ramirez as Ansiedad a budding teen who wants to be absolutely nothing like her irresponsible party girl mom Grace played by Eva Mendes. When Ansiedad's teacher Ms. Armstrong (Patricia Arquette) tells her class about coming-of-age rituals and how they're used to navigate between the world of childhood and adulthood she takes it as a literal guide to leaving her childhood — and her mother — behind.
Ansiedad is clever and a bit of a goody-two-shoes; she outlines a plan to go from being a regular girl to a woman as if it were a multimedia project for history. She explains in detail the different stages — acting out losing her virginity to a bad boy etc. — to her best friend Tavita (Raini Rodriguez) who looks on skeptically but agrees to help her friend even when part of the plan includes dumping her dorky BFF. Naturally the best-laid plans of teen girls often go awry and Ansiedad learns the hard way that these things are actually all pretty crappy ways to try become an adult. Unfortunately her dialogue is often reduced to exposition; she literally explains to the adults around her the steps she's at in her transformation. It undercuts Ramirez's performance and distances us from engaging with her emotionally.
Grace is Ansiedad's foil; she never finishes anything she moves them from town to town and she makes poor choices in men. Although this character could have really gone off the rails Mendes isn't vying for a dramatic Oscar bid; yes Grace likes to dance and drink and she's not a present mom but she's an overgrown teenager not a cruel parent. Unfortunately this is overemphasized with scenes of Grace getting ready to go out eating cereal sitting on the counter (and drinking the milk from the bowl of course) or falling asleep with her shoes on which Ansiedad carefully removes.
There's a subplot with Grace and two men but it doesn't do much to forward the story. One is her boyfriend a married gynecologist played by Matthew Modine and the other is a guy she works with at the crab shack whose nickname is Mission Impossible played by Eugenio Derbez.
This is actually one of the more confusing ways Girl in Progress deals with race. Grace needs money for the balance of Ansiedad's scholarship so while it makes sense that she'd take an extra job or two to make ends meet she's actually the housekeeper for Dr. Harford (Modine)'s family. Although Mission Impossible seems like he could be a good candidate for Grace there are some implausible plot developments that make him a rather unsuitable character.
Is the point here that it's more important for Grace to figure things out on her own? But then why when race isn't even spoken of in the movie would these odd details crop up? Girls can sniff out the most tender spot to attack in a weaker girl but the mean girls make fun of Ansiedad's clothes or Tavita's weight never their race. It doesn't quite add up and while I'd like to not make this a bigger deal than it is it seems odd that Girl in Progress would make race a non-issue in Ansiedad's world and then rely on tired clichés for Grace.
As for Mendes herself it's impossible to totally tone down her bombshell good looks but that also acts as a foil for Anseidad. The way Mendes is portrayed isn't particularly salacious or even shaming; she's just a damn good-looking woman with a young daughter who would prefer to be nothing like her. She's given more to do than in her usual roles but even when she's telling Ms. Armstrong all the reasons why she shouldn't judge her for her life choices it doesn't come across as particularly hard-hitting. The rote dialogue doesn't do anyone any favors.
Girl in Progress doesn't transgress or shock like Thirteen or other movies about the traumas of being a teen but that could be a good thing. Although it's not the hippest movie around town it is something that moms and daughters to watch together and talk about. It's also worth boosting a movie that doesn't rely on the same Hannah Montana clones to cast; the more that young girls can see themselves onscreen the better.
In December, America was lucky enough to receive the gift of Young Adult: Diablo Cody's intriguingly dark story of a narcissistic thirty-something who never developed emotionally beyond her self-absorbed, destructive seventeen-year-old state of being. Star Charlize Theron wreaks her havoc in the movie on her ex-boyfriend, her new friend, and her poor dog Dolce. Now, imagine if she had a kid: stakes immediately skyrocket. That seems to be what we're getting in Girl in Progress.
Eva Mendes plays a suspended-adolescence type who is "raising" a teenaged daughter on her own. As we can see in the below trailer, there's a lot more of her daughter (Cierra Ramirez) taking care of her than the other way around. The film pledges a story about both young women coming into their own, despite the struggles of being responsible for one another.
Girl in Progress also stars Matthew Modine and Patricia Arquette, and is directed by Patricia Riggen. The film opens Apr. 27.