Very Good Girls is a coming-of-age story starring two of the most talented young actresses out there today, so why is it so very hard to like? Almost nothing works in this limp excuse for a drama, from the contrived story to the clichéd characters to the awkward costume design. Even Elizabeth Olsen, horribly miscast, and Dakota Fanning, so vacant she appears translucent, can’t keep such a leaky vessel afloat.
Among Very Good Girls‘ many sins, perhaps the most glaring is that it feels like a movie written for teenagers by an adult who knows nothing about them. In the very first scene, high school seniors and lifelong friends Lilly (Fanning) and Gerri (Olsen) strip down at a public beach in broad daylight and run naked into the waves. I don’t know why. I don’t think writer-director Naomi Foner knows why. The film is filled with bizarre decisions like that, from Lilly’s inconsistent relationship with her parents to the movie’s central hook – that Lilly and Gerri, both desperate to lose their virginity before college, would zero in on the same dreamboat street artist (Boyd Holbrook) and start seeing him in secret, risking their friendship for a guy they barely know.
To endure Very Good Girls, there are a few things you have to accept. Firstly, nothing is more important to these two than having sex with a random guy and checking that box off their pre-college to-do list. Nothing. Secondly, don’t look below the surface – if Gerri wears hippy-dippy clothes and plays a musical instrument, she’s a free spirited, folksy gal, no matter how she acts throughout the rest of the movie. (Same goes for Holbrook’s love interest – he takes photos and creepily asks Lilly to read Sylvia Plath aloud before having sex with her, so I guess I’m meant to assume he’s “deep” and “sensitive.” Whatever.) And most importantly, no rift between gal pals, no matter how significant (read: stupid), cannot be repaired immediately with a playful striptease (?).
It’s not just the plot that feels limp, though. Fanning delivers an intensely internalized performance but never realizes that the leaden dialogue necessitates a little more, which turns Lilly into a robot with two modes – one glassy-eyed, the other excessively tearful. Neither feel relatable or even particularly human, a problem when Very Good Girls is primarily about her sexual awakening. Olsen brings a flighty anxiety and some real emotion to her role, but the script fails to give her character any depth, and it doesn’t help that the 25-year-old actress makes for one of the least believable high schoolers to grace the big screen since Alan Ruck in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. Neither are bad per se, but they’re playing awful, one-dimensional characters not at all deserving of their talents.
For his part, Holbrook looks like the love-child of Ryan Gosling and Brad Pitt, and his six-pack will probably help him pass the test with the teenage crowd, but he’s saddled with an unsympathetic and often boring character, to whom he fails to bring an ounce of charisma. When he disappears from the film for a good long while, you barely notice.
In slighter supporting roles, Ellen Barkin and Clark Gregg play Lilly’s strained parents, who attempt to keep their own infidelity away from the kids but fail miserably. Barkin, also miscast, never hits the emotional notes that a cuckolded wife should be able to easily. For his part, Gregg is all breezy charm, but outside of one scene (possibly Very Good Girls‘ best) in which he has a heart-to-heart with Lilly about her own love triangle, the performance is ineffectual. In even tinier roles, Richard Dreyfuss and Demi Moore play Gerri’s barely-there, less uptight parents, but neither has more than a few minutes of screen time. Finally, Peter Skarsgaard turns up as Lilly’s pervy boss, who is the center of an ill-conceived, ultimately pointless subplot later in the film. He’s better than the rest of the “adults,” as we’ll call them, but that’s not to say his acting is at all memorable either.
I’m not confident that Very Good Girls is a movie that ever could have been salvaged. Foner’s script is so rotten from bottom to top that no rewrites or post-production work probably could have polished the film to the point of presentability. I really do pity the actors who got stuck with it – all of them deserve much, much better, especially Fanning and Olsen. Both have proven themselves to be tremendously capable and mature actresses over the years, and they’re way above this kind of material.
Very Good Girls would have been better served with two kiddie TV starlets in the leads (maybe Miranda Cosgrove as Lilly and Debby Ryan as Gerri?), but even that tweak would have only reduced the uncomfortable sensation that the film’s leads are being shamefully wasted. There would still be issues of painfully out-of-touch, hackneyed writing and sagging plot to deal with. As it stands, we should all just avoid Very Good Girls – it’s cloying, vapid, artificial and very, very bad.