Review by FF2 Managing Editor Jan Lisa Huttner (with two cents from both Associate Editor Brigid Presecky & Contributing Editor Jessica Perry added at the very bottom)
Very Good Girls is a wonderful film with a terrible title. I actually saw it several weeks ago, but I waited to post my review until today—Very Good Girls’ official opening day in New York—so I would be able to include up-to-date information from Rotten Tomatoes.
Sure enough, Very Good Girls, which RT describes as “Best friends Lilly (Dakota Fanning) and Gerry (Elizabeth Olsen), home for one last New York summer, make a pact to lose their virginity before leaving for college…” is currently rated at 10% Fresh which is equal to 90% Rotten. (This calculation is based on 21 posted reviews, 2 of which are “Fresh” and 19 of which are “Rotten.” But even the 2 “Fresh” reviews contain factual errors and half-hearted endorsements.)
Now I know what you’re thinking. You’re thinking: “Everyone has a right to his or her own opinion,” right? But some things are not matters of opinion. Some things are matters of fact. And in the case of Very Good Girls, it is simply not the case that the film’s subject is “Best friends [who] make a pact to lose their virginity before leaving for college.”
Despite its title, Very Good Girls is about one girl, a girl named “Lilly.” Lilly is played by Dakota Fanning and she is in every single scene in Very Good Girls except one. In other words, while Lilly appears in scenes with Gerry, she also appears in scenes with her mother “Norma” (Ellen Barkin), her father “Edward” (Clark Gregg), her boss “Joe” (Peter Sarsgaard), and her two younger sisters “Eleanor” (Kiernan Shipka) and “Phoebe” (Clare Foley). So in addition to her scenes with Gerry, Lilly has scenes at home and at work, and Lilly even appears in several highly significant scenes all by her lonesome.
And what about Gerry? Gerry appears in one scene with a guy named “David” (Boyd Holbrook), who RT would have you believe is the bone of contention in an otherwise perfect Gerry/Lilly relationship (or as RT puts it, they “find their friendship tested when they both fall for the same guy.”) This scene lasts for about a minute. In all the other scenes in which Gerry appears, even scenes set in Gerry’s house with Gerry’s parents in the room, Lilly is always there on screen too.
In a film with a runtime of 1 hour and 31 minutes, that’s approximately 90 minutes of screen time with Lilly, and approximately one minute of screen time without Lilly. If that doesn’t count as an objective measure of “Point of View,” then I don’t know what does. These are facts, folks, and these facts have nothing whatsoever to do with my own opinion—one way or the other—of Very Good Girls.
But, of course, I’ve already told you right up front that I think Very Good Girls “is a wonderful film,” so what do I think happens to Lilly in these 90 minutes? To make a long story short: Lilly learns how to use her wings to fly from the nest.
When Very Good Girls opens, Lilly has just graduated from high school and she is getting ready to leave for college. It is midsummer. Most days, she works in Manhattan. (Lilly is one of the scrubbed clean kids who tell folks what they are looking at as they circle the city in a tour boat.) Some days–and most evenings–Lilly palls around with a girl—her BFF Gerry—who lives in her neighborhood.
Lilly is, indeed, a very good girl. From various conversations, we know that Lilly went to a school named St. Ann’s, which is a real place with a great reputation. But even if you don’t recognize the name St. Ann’s, you can guess that Lilly went to good school because her destination is Yale… and we all know Yale is a top notch Ivy.
Lilly’s family lives in a very large and very nice house in a Brooklyn enclave called “Victorian Flatbush,” but basically her family lives “above the store.” Both of her parents see patients at home. Her father (who is a physician) sees his patients in one set of offices, and her mother (who is a therapist) sees her patients in another set of offices. But we know this is an urban neighborhood rather than a suburb because we see Lilly getting on and off buses and subways where she is surrounded by a great mix of people.
(Full Disclosure: I actually live in this part of Brooklyn myself now, so I know that just to the west of Rugby Road is a Pakistani neighborhood, and just to the east of Rugby Road is an Afro-Caribbean neighborhood. Clothing styles and restaurant options run the full gamut.)
BFF Gerry also lives in Victorian Flatbush, but her house is not quite so plush. And it’s not at all clear that Gerry is a “very good girl.” While Lilly has spent her high school years doing all the things that get one to a place like Yale, Gerry has been hanging out with musicians. Did Gerry also go to St. Ann’s? Not clear. At one point she drops the name “Erasmus” which is a public school that has seen better days. Is Gerry also going to college? Not clear. No destination is ever defined for Gerry, so if she is, then it is likely to be local. After all, if Gerry’s goal is to be a musician and she’s already making connections, then why would she even consider leaving New York? But most important, Gerry has a wild streak. She does impulsive things, which is one reason why genuine “good girl” Lilly probably likes to pal around with her.
One day on an outing to Brighton Beach, Lilly and Gerry meet a guy name David who has a mobile food cart. Gerry immediately begins flirting with him (which is her nature), while Lilly watches with icy reserve (which is her nature). Unbeknownst to them, David, who wants to be a professional photographer, takes pictures of them as they are leaving for home. A few days later, David sees Lilly walking on the street. He posts pictures of her around what he rightly assumes to be her neighborhood, and after she sees them, Lilly returns to Brighton Beach alone for a second meeting. That’s when Lilly gives David her address. (But don’t look for Lilly’s house at 832 Rugby Road. I checked. It’s not a real address.)
Meanwhile things at home have gone from bad to worse. Lilly’s father Edward has moved out; Lilly’s mother Norma has locked herself in her room; and Lilly’s younger sisters Eleanor and Phoebe are in a panic. It is up to Lilly—always reliable, always in control—to keep the household going. When her boss Joe starts hitting on her at work, Lilly can’t tell Norma, so she tells Gerry and Gerry’s Mom “Kate” (Demi Moore). Kate wants Lilly to report Joe to the ACLU, but that’s not Lilly’s style. Gerry may be bit of a Drama Queen, but Lilly is still a “very good girl.”
And that is the set up and that is all I am going to say about what happens next. How Lilly copes with the various impediments between here (Victorian Flatbush) and there (Yale University), are for you to discover for yourself. But suffice it to say, Lilly is considerably older and wiser by the time she leaves for Orientation.
For a girl like Lilly, this moment—the moment when she leaves home and heads for college—is one of the most important moments of her life. Filmmaker Naomi Foner received an Oscar nomination and a Golden Globe award in 1989 when she wrote a screenplay about a young man at exactly the same age. Running On Empty remains one of my all-time favorite films, which is probably one reason why I went into this new film—which Foner both wrote and directed—wanting to love it. But wanting doesn’t make it so. If I did love it—and I did—it’s because Dakota Fanning does such a brilliant job of bringing Lilly to life on screen.
In 1989, River Phoenix got an Oscar nomination for his performance as “Danny” in Running On Empty. In a fair world, Dakota Fanning would get an Oscar nomination for her performance as Lilly too. But the world isn’t a fair place. There will be no Oscar nominations for a film that gets a 10% Fresh on Rotten Tomatoes…
© Jan Lisa Huttner FF2 Media (7/25/15). Updated later to accommodate discussion of Very Good Girl’s predictably disappointing RT scores.
Top Photo: Dakota Fanning as “Lilly.”
Middle Photo: Lilly with “David” (Boyd Holbrook).
Bottom Photo: Lilly and “Gerry” (Elizabeth Olson) meet David for the first time in Brighton Beach.
Q: Does Very Good Girls pass the Bechdel Test?
If you’ve read the above, then you already know that the answer is a resounding and unequivocal YES!
After my original viewing of this film around this time last year, I would been one of those Rotten Tomatoes reviewers giving Very Good Girls a Very low score. I was frustrated with the general premise, the plot points and the main protagonist. Although Dakota Fanning is one of the finest actors of this generation, the character she brought to life felt like an unlikable blank slate.
Now that I am one year older and wiser (so to speak), I can look at Very Good Girls differently. An unlikable protagonist? That isn’t necessarily a bad thing at all. In the past few years, the so-called “Golden Age of Television” has glorified the male anti-hero, from Tony Soprano to Walter White to Donald Draper. So why, when a female film character struggles with her moral compass, was I so quick to judge?
The visual aspects of the film suck you into the Brooklyn-based world as Cinematographer Bobby Bukowski sets the tone, making Victorian Flatbush a picturesque backdrop for the story. I agree with Jan: the plot is not about a love triangle, but a story of a young woman named “Lilly” (Dakota Fanning) on the verge of independence. Writer/Director Naomi Foner centers on Lilly’s escape from her chaotic family life, finding comfort in “David” (Boyd Holbrook) the boy that her best friend “Gerry” (Elizabeth Olsen) is falling for at the same time. It’s raw, it’s romantic and it’s heartbreaking.
That being said, I still did not love Very Good Girls, maybe because I still empathize with Gerry: the girl who is trying so desperately to be liked; the girl who comes from a loving, funny and supportive family; the girl who is dealing with a traumatic situation with little help from her supposed “best friend” Lilly.
Although it’s a tale as old as time, used in songs like Rick Springfield’s “Jessie’s Girl“ or the WB’s epic Dawson-Joey-Pacey fallout of 2000, I always find friendship to be a more interesting storyline than the forbidden romance it circles around. Foner does give Fanning and Olsen a generous amount of screentime together, but this time around, I recognized why I originally felt so disengaged.
Bottom Line: Sure, Lilly is darker and has legitimate excuses to back up her actions, but to me, the more interesting character is Gerry, the insecure friend putting on a facade. (BKP: 3.5/5)
© Brigid K. Presecky FF2 Media (9/3/15)
Let’s start with the title… Very Good Girls? Not sure that name describes the film at all.
Very Good Girls opens with “Lilly” (Dakota Fanning) and “Gerri” (Elizabeth Olsen) streaking across a public beach. Sure, it sounds like this is the first time they have done this, but since we are not told why exactly they decide to prance in the nude on that very day, all I can think is: “very good girls” do not strip in public places.
Yes, they both graduated high school not having lost their virginity, but if sex is the only thing that defines a girl as good or bad, I’m fairly certain that is not a fair distinction. Moreover, once sex does come into the picture, Lilly and Gerri operate on lies and hidden agendas. Personally, I felt a little misled by the title, and while the film I sat down to watch was entertaining and well-acted, it was just not what I had planned to see.
Dakota Fanning has always been a favorite actor of mine. I think she is incredibly talented, and has proven herself in the world of film from a very young age. Elizabeth Olsen, on the other hand, is relatively new to me, but she continues to surprise me in every new film I see her in.
So I suppose I went into Very Good Girls with high hopes that the pairing would make the film one of my new favorites. Sadly, their performances were overshadowed by my frustration with their characters’ ridiculous choices.
Very Good Girls was a solid first directing effort from Oscar-nominated screenwriter Naomi Foner. I liked the film well enough, but considering that it had a cast that I loved, I also wanted to love the film. Sadly the slow pacing, a few narrative flaws, and that title, made it just shy of great. (JEP: 3/5)
© Jessica E. Perry FF2 Media (9/14/15)