Girls Town (Jim McKay)

Rating: ** (out of ****)

Girls Town, a caustic and appealingly loose-limbed tale of three high-school girls and their struggle to "SUBVERT THE PATRIARCHY" (according to a graffito written by one of them on a bathroom stall), is in many ways an admirable film: intelligent, principled, honest, subtle, ambitious, perceptive, and a host of other laudatory adjectives. In fact, I noticed only one flaw. Unfortunately, that one is a corker: I didn't believe a single moment of it. Initial mild skepticism was gradually replaced by a desire to yell yeah as the hell if right! at the screen -- not in response to the narrative's events (which are few and far between, and reasonably plausible), but at the very world that Jim McKay and his three actors endeavor to create. Part of the problem -- a pretty sizable chunk of it, in fact -- lies in the casting. I won't be the first person to note that the three lead actors are all far too old for their roles (Lili Taylor is 29 or 30, and Anna Grace and Bruklin Harris look to me as if they graduated from college during the Reagan administration), but that's a mere quibble -- if I can accept Angela Lansbury (born 1925) as Laurence Harvey's (born 1928) mother in The Manchurian Candidate, I can accept just about anything. More problematic by far is the way in which the actors' maturity and keen intelligence intrude upon their roles. Just as it's sorta cute, but also extremely distracting, to watch high-school students play adults in the school's production of A Man for All Seasons (I was Henry VIII, if you must know), it's also impossible, while watching Girls Town, to forget for a moment that Taylor, Grace and Harris are pretending to be a lot younger and much less self-assured than they actually are. The whole film, consequently, feels like a mildly impressive stunt; the performances are technically adept (especially Taylor's), but I often had to stifle a laugh at the odd "Yo!" or "'sup?," so blatantly did they strike me as mere affectation. (That the film was largely improvised doesn't help matters, as McKay is not yet Mike Leigh, or even Nick (Laws of Gravity) Gomez. Much of the dialogue is tediously realistic.) True, several of the characters are allegedly honors students en route to Ivy League universities, but this, too, rings false; compared to the achievers I knew in school -- even in junior high -- they're dumb as anvils. McKay & Co. want to have it both ways -- presenting us with tough, streetwise young women who also aced the SAT and volunteer at the local hospice -- and while such people may exist, what wound up on the screen is idealized, literally in-credible mush. I found myself feeling vaguely nostalgic about Kids, a film that bored me silly -- not a good sign.