Isn’t it always convenient when a teacher in a film gives a class lesson that handily parallels the protagonist’s own struggle or journey? Girl in Progress doesn’t shy away from this trope; furthermore, it makes sure that our lead, Ansiedad (Cierra Ramirez), is actually taking notes. See, Ansiedad is fed up with her mother, Grace (Eva Mendes), and her irresponsible behavior, so once Ms. Armstrong (Patricia Arquette) trots out the coming-of-age story, Ansiedad watches as many movies and reads as many books as she can on the subject in order to best emulate the formula and strike out on her own.
It’s a slightly clever idea, not entirely unlike the main thrust of 2010’s Easy A, in which a young overachiever seeks to excel at maturity by building up nerd cred in order to destroy it in very public fashion, but it leads to a schematic plot by screenwriter Hiram Martinez which nonetheless replicates the usual “lose your old friends for the cool crowd” routine. Progress acknowledges clichés but has little interest in actually subverting them, instead growing more predictable and sentimental as it goes along.
Grace’s arc hardly differs in its level of originality. She’s the one who has to turn the music down when asked, the one who gets tucked in at night after another date with a married man (Matthew Modine), the one who instinctively checks for her panties when she wakes up in a strange place. Circumstances at her workplace see her juggling two phones and a restaurant full of unhappy customers in a frenzy verging on I Love Lucy levels, only to be saved by her constantly ignored, yet ideally single colleague, Mission (Eugenio Derbez). Naturally, he tries to give her a ride home on his bike, only to be one-upped once someone else pulls up in a BMW.
As directed by Patricia Riggen (whose Under the Same Moon was similarly corny and whose Disney Channel experience comes through whenever the high-school drama flares up), the film rarely gets too madcap for its own good, only occasionally underlining too heavily the differences and likenesses between the two women and allowing Ansiedad’s bucket list of teenage rebellion to guide us through the familiar channels of best friends fighting, culminating in a shamelessly timed reveal of one character’s drug overdose. Until then, Mendes and Ramirez feel viably harried and at odds with one another, not to mention the world at large. Arquette gets to literally define “epiphany” when not shaking her head in disappointment, Modine has passive-aggressive encounters with his wife, and Derbez tries to do the right thing in an equally gentle key.
Will the prickly daughter learn to value her immature mother, and vice versa? Does the title actually apply to both characters? Don’t you doubt it for a second. Setting aside the odd joke about spousal abuse, we’re looking at a mostly harmless affair whose extremes range from mildly cute to fairly mawkish. Given enough time, Girl grows up just as you expect it to.