Very Good Girls is either a smart movie about families or a dumb movie about teenagers. Or maybe it’s a little of both. It’s allegedly about two Brooklyn teens (played by Dakota Fanning and Elizabeth Olsen) trying to lose their virginity one summer, but it’s really about the bonds of family and friendship. I know, I know — that sounds like a load of hooey, but Naomi Foner’s film really does wear its subtext on its sleeve. It’s well acted and psychologically acute, even if what’s actually happening onscreen often feels a lot less interesting than what’s clearly boiling beneath the film’s surface.
Lilly (Fanning) and Gerri (Olsen) are inseparable best friends growing up in Ditmas Park, holding the rest of the world with a sort of playful but snotty disregard. They like to ride their bikes out to Brighton Beach and mock the people around them. Early on, they run naked through a crowded beach before jumping into the ocean, then pretend to be uncomprehending Romanians when two bros try to hit on them in the water. That the film actually manages to make these girls so sympathetic is a testament to these two excellent young actresses: We read in them the complicated standoffishness of youth, not the preening vanity of privilege — even though there’s plenty of both going on.
But already, reality is starting to come between these two friends. The reserved, tense Lilly is headed to Yale in the fall, while Gerri, the extroverted dreamer, is more interested in pursuing a musical career. Each girl wants more than anything to escape from her family, but they reflect their families' neuroses as well: Lilly's home is elegantly appointed and chilly, dominated by the emotional paralysis between her parents; Gerri's home is a bubbly place where everybody talks and questions each other. "She doesn’t come from a family where you have to train for dinner!" Gerri complains at the table one night when her smart-ass, lefty dad (Richard Dreyfuss) gets a little inquisitive about Lilly’s life plans. (This, by the way, is a side of Brooklyn one rarely sees on film — the well-to-do longtime residents who don't fit the borough's more common cinematic molds of inner-city angst or drifty hipsterism.)
The girls’ relationship is put to the test when they meet a blond, hunky photographer/ice-cream seller/boy-toy named David (Boyd Holbrook). David pursues Lilly; Gerri pursues David; Lilly keeps her burgeoning relationship with David from Gerri. The film wants to sell David to us as a soulful artiste, but he’s a total blank — an empty shell with nothing but a male model frown for an expression. You may wonder why two smart, beautiful girls might have such a crisis of friendship over him. But then again, the movies have given us so many vapid female objects of desire over the years; why not a male one now and again?
The film never quite reconciles the banality of this love triangle with its far more interesting depiction of the rest of these characters’ lives. There's a hint that the girls' relationships with the men in their lives exists on a spectrum. Gerri is irritated by her hippy-dippy, socially conscious father; Lilly is troubled, but strangely accepting when she discovers her own dad (Clark Gregg) romancing a patient in his basement office; she’s also warding off advances from her boss (Peter Sarsgaard) at her summer job. Maybe David's emptiness means each girl can fill him with her own emotional needs. But the film's depiction of David doesn't quite feel like a knowing subversion; it feels like a lot of stylized fawning over a profoundly uninteresting character.
Even so, there’s intelligence behind Very Good Girls. It was written and directed by Naomi Foner, a talented veteran screenwriter (also, as it so happens, mother to Jake and Maggie Gyllenhaal) now making her belated directorial debut. She wrote one of the greatest films of the 1980s, Sidney Lumet’s Running on Empty — an unforgettable, River Phoenix–starring drama about a family of '60s radicals on the run — as well as a couple of underrated gems like Losing Isaiah. In these and other works, Foner displayed a real feel for the various undercurrents that rage within families, both happy and broken ones. She understands how irritation can transform into profound need at a moment’s notice, as well as how happiness can quickly turn rotten. Very Good Girls is full of memorable, subtle touches that come through whenever Foner seems to be working to her strengths. A shame, though, about what’s actually happening onscreen.