Sundance Review: 'Very Good Girls'

"Very Good Girls" is the story of the sexual awakening of two best friends one hot summer in New York. Lily (Dakota Fanning) is quiet, sedate and timid, while her best friend Gerry (Elizabeth Olsen) is wilder, more creative and vivacious. The pair live comfortably upper class lives, and Lily will be heading off to Yale at the end of the summer. They're determined to lose their virginity before going off to college, but they end up falling for the same guy — a handsome, would-be photographer/waiter named David (Boyd Holbrook). Lily begins a secret affair with David while Gerry plots ways to get his attention, leaving Lily feeling guilty and uncertain. Amidst a host of personal problems, like parental fighting and more, the two girls will find their friendship strained to the breaking point.

This is the first directorial effort from screenwriter Naomi Foner ("Running on Empty," "Losing Isaiah," and also the mother of Maggie and Jake Gyllenhaal), and it's a triumphant first film. "Very Good Girls" revolves around a time of transition, girls moving from their childhood into adulthood, the complexities of sexual awakening and the passage from high school into college. Beautifully shot with elegant pacing and direction, these girls are fully formed characters with all the flair and naturalism of real, vivid friendship. The pair of them are pushing boundaries, circling the edges of the adult world, knowing they'll get there sooner than they think but simultaneously willing things to remain as they are for just a little while longer.

One of the things the film gets absolutely right is the awkwardness that exists even among friends regarding sexuality — the curiosity, the wondering, the imagining which is almost more unbearable than simply not knowing. The film stays focused on the two girls; David remains faint and recedes into the background as Lily and Gerry's relationship changes. Lily starts to relate more to Gerry in the context of her secrets and new relationship, while Gerry continues to relate to Lily as her closest and best friend, to whom all boys are tertiary beings.

Dakota Fanning proves herself as more than just a child actress aging into new adult roles. Her gentle expressions and innocence is startling and wonderful to behold as she struggles with maturity and feeling increasingly isolated from Gerry and from her fighting parents. Elizabeth Olsen is bright, bubbly and enchanting, and they have a great chemistry together. Boyd Holbrook plays his role of divisive, stoic artist well; we know little about him as the film progresses and that's as it should be. The film is far more concerned with the relationship between the girls and doesn't overextend by trying to fill out every side character. With a strong supporting cast as well, it's hard to play favorites, but Ellen Barkin as Lily's harsh mother and Richard Dreyfuss as Gerry's rambunctious father are perhaps the standouts. Also turning in admirable performances are Demi Moore, Kiernan Shipka and Peter Sarsgaard.

There are certainly small matters to be critical of — for instance, the fact that these girls enjoy a life of privilege, attending private schools and living in large homes in New York City, with parents who are wealthy doctors and therapists. Or the lack of people of color in the film, except for perhaps one or two minor characters who have no lines, to my knowledge. This is a very particular vision of New York City, and this is a very particular moment in time, and perhaps the lack of acknowledgement of these issues speaks to the kind of selfish focus that comes with being young and unaware.

"Very Good Girls" is ultimately a very good film, and a tremendous first effort from writer and director Foner. Even the views of the city offer a kind of  unintentional documentary of New York City in the summer. Whether you recognize yourself in the broad strokes or the details, the film speaks truths about the female experience that are well worth hearing.

Grade: A-