Friday, 11 April 2014

Movie Review: Beautiful Girls (1996)


A character-rich study with a focus on growing up and finding the right relationship, Beautiful Girls is a winsome slice of small-town life.

Sensitive piano player Willie (Timothy Hutton), now based in New York City, return to his snowy small hometown of Knights Ridge, Massachusetts, for a high school reunion. Willie reconnects with his old school buddies who never left town, and are now all in their late twenties: Tommy (Matt Dillon), Mo (Noah Emmerich), Paul (Michael Rapaport), Kev (Max Perlich), and Stanley (Pruitt Taylor Vince).

Tommy ("Birdman") was the school football star, and he never grew up. Now running a small snowplow company, Tommy is seeing Sharon (Mira Sorvino), but carrying on an affair with his married high school sweetheart Derian (Lauren Holly). Mo is happily married to Sarah (Anne Bobby), and is the most settled of the group. Paul is also a snowplower and has not moved beyond the supermodel pin-up phase nor learned to deal with real women. He is having trouble letting go of former girlfriend Jan (Martha Plimpton), who is now dating someone else. Kev is Tommy's sidekick, while hardworking Stanley ("Stinky") is operating his own restaurant.

As Willie catches up with the lives and loves of his buddies, he meets and befriends his neighbours' daughter, precocious 13 year old Marty (Natalie Portman), and contemplates his future with long-term New York girlfriend Tracy (Annabeth Gish). The town's wisemouth hairdresser Gina (Rosie O'Donnell) dishes out advice to anyone who listens, while Stinky's stunningly beautiful cousin Andera (Uma Thurman) arrives in town, and causes a stir among the guys.

A film with no heroes, villains, central romance, irony or glib humour, Beautiful Girls is simply about people trying to assemble the puzzle of adulthood. With echoes of Mystic Pizza (1988), Beautiful Girls excels at creating rounded, flawed characters worth caring about. Director Ted Demme, working from a fine script by Scott Rosenberg, quickly establishes the guys, the girls and the complex dynamics between them, bringing the tapestry of life to the quiet streets of Knights Ridge.

The film glides easily between the no less than 16 friends and relatives who make up Willie's ecosystem, and just as Willie drops into the lives-in-progress of his friends, the film catches all the relevant stories mid-stream. Paul is struggling to cope with Jan leaving him behind, Tommy is caught between the devoted Sharon and the lusty Derian, while Mo and Stinky are just getting on with lives that have traded glamour for maturity.

The catalysts are the outsiders and newcomers. Young Marty brings an inquisitive mind and an open heart into Willie's life, their chats developing into a credible crush that is intellectually impossible but emotionally real. Andera, with her big-city outlook and no nostalgic attachments to Knights Ridge, sees things for what they are, piercing through Paul's amateur attempts at making Jan jealous, immediately reading Tommy's immaturity, and finding in Willie the one man worth nudging towards the right side of the commitment fence.

To drive the narrative forward, Rosenberg does allow the members of Willie's circle to quickly open up and talk through their issues. Guys like Tommy and Paul may be stuck in teenage mode and unable to grapple with what it means to be men, but they are nevertheless not shy about talking through their thoughts, emotions and viewpoints. This ability to share is at odds with the often emotionally stilted reality of relatively immature guys.

The performances from the ensemble cast strike a perfect tone, the characters all translated into real people navigating the choppy waters of small town living and mismanaged expectations. Hutton, Dillon, and Rapaport form the strongest bond at the heart of the many friendships, but Natalie Portman, all of 14 during filming, steals the movie with a stunning performance, finding the thin edge between child and adult, smart but not sassy, sensitive but not sentimental. Her relationship with Willie becomes a trigger for a better future: he sees himself through her eyes as a man worth living up to the name. The most beautiful girl, as it turns out, is also the youngest, and her beauty radiates through her belief in tomorrow's possibilities.






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