Lili Taylor, who must be the busiest actress at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, gives a superlative, gut-wrenching performance in “Girls Town,” a powerfully raw, ultra-realistic drama about a trio of abused teenage girls and their struggle to survive in a rigidly defined, male-dominated society. Jim McKay’s striking feature debut, a feminist saga that makes its points without being overly preachy, should appeal to young viewers, particularly women, who are likely to identify with the film’s strongly independent heroines.
Co-writer and director McKay reveals a sensitive grasp of the feelings of young, mostly working-class women who are determined not only to establish themselves as worthy individuals but to fight against a social system that has oppressed them for too long. Credible dramatic situations and authentic lingo, the film’s two most impressive assets, may be a result of the script’s development in a workshop with all the actresses involved in the writing process.
A quartet of four high school seniors who are best friends, despite varying economic and ethnic backgrounds, painfully realize that this might be their last year together before each goes her separate way.
A bit older than the rest, Patti (Taylor) is also burdened with being a single mom. The father of her baby is a lout who periodically enters her life, always unwelcome, always physically or verbally abusive. Like Patti, Emma (Anna Grace) is a tough, foul-mouthed white girl, though she’s more educated and ambitious. The two black females, the sensitive Nikki (Aunjanue Ellis) and strong-willed Angela (Bruklin Harris) live with moms who don’t understand them.
As the story begins, the girls’ world is shattered by Nikki’s suicide, throwing each woman into a self-probing crisis. The event also leads to soul-searching questions about personal issues, such as the meaning of friendship, as well as more political ones, like women’s victimization and solidarity. There’s a wonderful scene in which the girls discuss Nikki’s rape, which they learn about when reading her journal. This general discussion unexpectedly steers them toward personal revelations. In another equally spontaneous scene, the trio realize that even though they’ve spent a lot of time together, they really don’t know one another well.
McKay’s camera acutely observes the girls’ everyday life, at or around school: cutting classes, arguing about sex and boys, fighting with other girls and so on. The most frequent and popular hangout is the lavatory, where the girls let off steam, express themselves with obscene graffiti on the walls and use bluntly frank lingo about their most intimate concerns.
Helmer also conveys effectively the sheer joy and catharsis in the girls’ reluctance to quietly accept their place in society. They brutally vandalize the car of a rapist student, and are not afraid to confront directly and beat up the white adult who raped Nikki and caused her suicide. Clearly, the trio represents a new brand of women, not too educated perhaps, but feminist in praxis rather than ideology.
It’s a tribute to the film’s intelligent writing and superb ensemble acting that while dealing with weighty issues, such as what should be the “right” reaction to violence against women or how women should deal with rape, the tale unfolds in a natural manner, without resorting to melodramatic crises or signaling blatant messages.
One of “Girls Town’s” novel aspects is that it shows how superficial– and artificial — is the distinction between the personal and the political. In this story, sexual politics invades the girls’ universe on a daily basis. It’s hard to think of many American movies that address such serious matters in an absorbing way.
Taylor flawlessly inhabits the central role of a young woman who’s aware of her limitations but is nonetheless resolved to improve her lot. The scene in which she finally breaks down, admitting to her friends that despite a tough facade she’s totally exhausted, is heartbreaking. Taylor is supported vigorously by Grace and Harris, two first-rate thesps who are so believable they never look or sound like actresses.
Blowup from 16mm is OK, and tech credits are modest, as befits a low-budgeter whose singularity doesn’t rely on production values. Truly independent in spirit and tone, “Girls Town” not only satisfies Sundance’s raison d’etre as the prime showcase for indies, it also does it proud.