Eva Mendes made a striking first impression in 2001’s Training Day, playing bad cop Denzel Washington’s girlfriend, rising naked and gorgeous from a rumpled bed. She’s been part of a mega-franchise and appeared in two of the Fast and Furious movies. She smoldered like Sophia Loren and displayed a likeable, game manner in both the light comedy Hitch and Werner Herzog’s darkly comic The Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call—New Orleans. So why isn’t she a star with a career on the boil?
She isn’t furthering her career with her turn in the sweet but wholly predictable, minor movie like Patricia Riggen’s Girl in Progress. It’s a single mama drama. Mendes plays Grace, who got pregnant at 17 with Ansiedad (Cierra Ramirez). Cast out by her own mother years ago, Grace supports her daughter by working double shifts as a housemaid and as a waitress at a crab shack. She’s always sleeping with someone, at present the married, obviously heartless gynecologist, Dr. Harford (Matthew Modine) whose house she cleans. Grace has hopes, but Ansiedad, long witness as to her mother’s rocky romantic life, is snottily dismissive. “How’s the wife?” she asks Dr. Harford. “How’s your father?” he shoots back.
In Ansiedad’s mind, Grace is a terrible mother, more concerned with her own love life than Ansiedad’s chess tournaments and academic achievements. Riggen (whose 2007 Under the Same Moon was a critical darling) seems to be aiming for an update of Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore, but the movie plays more like a Latina spin on Gilmore Girls, with a ditzier Lorelai and a more resentful Rory. Ansiedad is eager to get away from her embarrassingly immature mother. But despite offenses like gobbling the last of the cereal and milk in the morning, Grace isn’t nearly as bad as Ansiedad believes her to be. Yes she’s a relentless flirt, but she obviously works hard to keep her daughter in a private school and their home is cozy and neat. Riggen and screenwriter Hiriam Martinez aren’t hard enough on Grace to make Ansiedad’s resentments feel entirely earned. Or maybe Mendes, with those warm eyes and quick smile, isn’t equipped to be as dark as she needs to be. Dangerously sexy, yes, but a dangerously bad mother? Not so much.
Inspired by her English teacher ‘s (Patricia Arquette) lecture about the importance of the genre, Ansiedad decides to stage her own coming-of-age story so she’ll be mature enough to leave. “Being a kid is stupid and I’m moving on,” Ansiedad tells her best friend, Tavita (Raini Rodriguez).
Instead of using literature as her template, Ansiedad seems to have looked more to the model of contemporary movies to establish her game plan, a little Mean Girls, a little Easy A. To whit, she befriends her school’s resident bad girl, hatches a plot to lose her virginity to the resident bad boy and then board a bus to New York, an adult in experience if not years. She lays the groundwork for the plan, including giving plump, pimply Tavita the heads-up that she’s going to be demeaned and ditched for the popular crowd.
Ansiedad is supposed to be smart, sensitive and jaded but the second major problem with Hiram Martinez’s screenplay is that she’s simultaneously supposed to be so naive as to believe this could actually work. With a 10 year-old, this kind of cluelessness might be cute—in a Tatum O’Neal, Paper Moon-kind of way—but in a teenager, especially one with such scorn for her mother’s desperate, needy choices, her lack of self-awareness feels false and forced. When Ansiedad decapitates her teddy bears in an attempt to telegraph how “dark” she’s becoming it is no wonder Grace is more puzzled than worried. Grace does care, though, and the way Mendes plays her, with a sunny innocence, she’s the cutest bad mother ever; there’s no tension as to whether these two will work it out. (Try Thirteen for that.)
Any attempt to upend all that’s trite about coming-of-age stories is appreciated—watching Ansiedad go through the checklist of its tired components certainly highlights the need for it. But unfortunately, Girl in Progress doesn’t upend anything; it just makes us weary of its wisecracking, oblivious teen and her ditzy mom. Both leads are competent and likeable and Riggen gives the movie a warm glow, all softly lit inviting interiors and prettily framed exteriors. But her gentle, slight Girl is far from progressive. The mystery of Eva Mendes’ slow-simmering career continues.