And still no one has discovered a reliable way to draw Latino audiences to movie theaters the way Tyler Perry has been able to draw African-American audiences. Maybe that’s a good thing; I’d rather have a few earnest dramas like this week’s Girl in Progress than a never-ending string of pandering flicks like Perry’s. That’s not to say that Girl in Progress is free of its own pandering, but it’s still preferable.
The movie takes place in Seattle, the latest landing place for 33-year-old single mother Altagracia (Eva Mendes), who goes by the name of Grace for the benefit of the Anglos around her. She works at a seafood restaurant to provide for her 16-year-old daughter Ansiedad (newcomer Cierra Ramirez) but is never around for her, spending her off hours drinking and nightclubbing with a married doctor (Matthew Modine) who strings her along with talk of leaving his wife. The bookish and self-motivated Ansiedad, who’s well aware that her name means “anxiety,” has concluded long ago that she’s more mature than her mom and is used to making dinner for herself out of bolillos dipped in coffee.
The movie begins briskly, with director Patricia Riggen finding the rhythms of mother and daughter’s eternally unsettled life — Grace’s first impulse is always to pull up stakes and move to a new city whenever her relationship goes bad. Unsurprisingly, Ansiedad wants to leave her childhood behind with all due haste, and she takes elements from the stories she reads in English class to construct her own plan for accelerating the coming-of-age process. This is potentially a cute detail, but the filmmakers put too much weight on it, using Ansiedad’s plan as a structuring principle for the whole story. The plan results in some regrettable melodrama near the end revolving around Ansiedad trying to lose her virginity to a self-styled bad boy (Landon Liboiron) and ignoring her best friend (Raini Rodriguez) with near-tragic results. The proceedings thankfully don’t get as weepy as they did in Riggen’s previous film, Under the Same Moon, but even so, the movie could have used much less cheap sentiment.
That’s especially true considering that the newcomer Ramirez is an alert presence and a promising talent for the future. Mendes (whom I’ve never been the biggest fan of) is much more comfortable with the hedonistic and girlish aspect of Grace than with the heavier theatrics that she’s called on to do. Pleasingly odd-looking comedian Eugenio Derbez periodically gives the proceedings a boost as a handyman at the restaurant who’s nicknamed Mission Impossible because of his struggles to learn English, but his role is too cookie-cutter to let him do much.
For all its flaws, Girl in Progress is a cut above James L. Brooks’ similar 2003 comedy Spanglish, and it’s a mother-daughter story that not too many other movies (Latin or not) have bothered to tell. The fact that we have to settle for this tells us something about what’s wrong with our moviegoing culture, but this Mother’s Day weekend, its uniqueness makes it recommendable.
Girl in Progress
Starring Eva Mendes and Cierra Ramirez. Directed by Patricia Riggen. Written by Hiram Martinez. Rated PG-13.