Very Good Girls

Very Good Girls (2013)
★★★ / ★★★★

Lilly (Dakota Fanning) and Gerri (Elizabeth Olsen) are best friends who live in New York who one day meet and fall for the same guy named David (Boyd Holbrook). Written and directed by Naomi Foner, although “Very Good Girls” is unrealistic in terms of how young people are actually like today, within the confines of the story being told, the picture works because it is able to employ a nostalgic tone and continually attempts to establish the characters beyond the premise of the film: two girls who wish to lose their virginity before they go off to their respective universities in the fall.

Given its premise, how does one make the story not come across tacky? The casting of Fanning and Olsen is key because these are performers who can communicate more than one emotion at once even without speaking. It is expected that Lilly and Gerri are opposites—the former coming from a well-to-do family but having no laughter in their home and the later from a sort of bohemian family and they are very open to one another—but as we spend more time with them, we learn why the girls are very close. When they hold conversations, they do not always have to explain what could be wrong. Sometimes all they have to do is look at one another’s eyes and form an understanding given that they know each other’s families well enough.

Less interesting is the girls’ relationship with David. Although Holbrook does an all right job in general, part of the problem is that the character is poorly written compared Gerri and Lilly. As a result, he comes across as dull most of the time. We eventually come to learn about his interests and hopes for the future but we never get a real sense of his inner drive to get to where he wants to be. So, other than a physical attraction, what else does Gerri and Lilly see in him?

There is a subplot involving Lilly’s parents (Ellen Barkin, Clark Gregg) being on the verge of a separation because of an infidelity. It is supposed to draw some parallels in terms of how Lilly feels or thinks about when David and Gerri are together. Although the writer-director connects the dots for us, the subplot does not always work because we do not get a complete picture of how the marriage is really like. In the end, more discerning viewers will likely recognize that the marriage and the friendship are not comparable.

Halfway through the picture, I expected a shift in perspective: the first half being about Lilly and David and the second about David and Gerri. This does not occur, which is a pleasant surprise, but I wished that it did. This is because the film touches upon the subject of betrayal. The material makes a case that silent betrayals can sometimes hurt more than having to have a confrontation about them. It would have been a stronger picture if we were given a chance to understand the two girls equally and why they felt they needed to make certain choices that they knew would hurt the other.

Despite its shortcomings, I appreciated “Very Good Girls” for its mature approach of two girls wishing to lose their virginity. Under another filmmaker’s reigns, it could have turned exploitative—especially in terms of Lilly’s relationship with a much older co-worker (Peter Sarsgaard). Fanning and Olsen share an interesting chemistry and they make good decisions on a consistent basis so their characters remain fresh in familiar material.

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