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.