On paper, the idea of a dual-track coming-of-age film about a young Latina woman and her rebellious teenager might seem like an interesting idea. But “Girl in Progress,” from helmer Patricia Riggen (“Under the Same Moon”) and screenwriter Hiram Martinez, never finds its own groove, alternating between high-school dramedy and overworked-single-mom narratives without ever really becoming a mother-and-daughter story until the closing scenes. Star power and Eva Mendes’ nicely modulated perf as the hard-working breadwinner should help the Seattle-set, partly Spanish-language pic gain some traction, especially in urban areas, though ancillary action will likely be more caliente.
The film is opening May 11, just before Mother’s Day, through Pantelion, a joint venture of Lionsgate and Mexican entertainment giant Televisa that is trying to carve a niche for itself in the U.S. with mainstream-oriented, Latino-accented fare such as the recent Will Ferrell starrer “Casa de mi padre.” While “Girl’s” melodramatic conventions transcend any language barrier, it’s this very lack of originality that might keep the pic from breaking out of its niche.
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Mendes plays pretty, always busy Grace, who works two jobs and still struggles to pay the bills. She’s also sweet on Dr. Hartford (Matthew Modine), a well-off gynecologist with a nice-guy demeanor whose house she cleans regularly. Since her life is so hectic, Grace has little time for her daughter, Ansiedad (Cierra Ramirez), who rather comically decides to accelerate her oncoming puberty; having absorbed the coming-of-age stories assigned by her teacher, Ms. Armstrong (Patricia Arquette), she tries to force the different stages to happen in her own life.
The challenges facing either of these women could have been the subject of an interesting screenplay, but by combining the two, scripter Martinez (“Four Dead Batteries”) doesn’t allow each tale to develop beyond a somewhat generic outline. The lack of connective tissue and more explicitly drawn parallels between the storylines — which are present, since Grace was a teen mother and has her own kind of growing up to do — drags the pic down to the level of a basic TV series; until the film’s final reel, Grace’s quotidian dramas and the more humorous and exaggerated dilemmas facing Ansiedad (“anxiety” in Spanish) don’t really seem to be linked, beyond the fact that the characters happen to be related.
A saving grace is Mendes, who’s been handed a rare role that doesn’t depend on her looks, and delivers a fitfully agitated and occasionally frumpish turn. As her offspring, Ramirez turns on the sass without going overboard; she’s especially strong in some funny-yet-resonant scenes with high-school ladies man Trevor (Landon Liboiron). Modine and Arquette are big names in small and indistinct supporting roles.
Vancouver adequately stands in for Seattle, and it’s refreshing to see a story about Latino characters that’s not set in the usual urban centers. Camerawork by Checco Varese, who also shot Riggen’s more successful mother-son drama “Under the Same Moon,” is solid, though Christopher Lennertz’s score too often wades into Muzak territory.