An early scene in Very Good Girls surveys the bedroom of Lilly (Dakota Fanning), a well-to-do New York City teen determined to find summer love before going off to college in the fall. On the wall is a poster for Jules and Jim, a decision by director Naomi Foner that’s clearly meant to align her own film with François Truffaut’s ultimate, cinematic romantic triangle. It’s a move that makes sense given the comparable narrative, albeit via gender switch. Lilly and Gerry (Elizabeth Olson) are BFFs bounding around the city streets, playing music, and exchanging laughs, which all comes under fire once they share a mutual infatuation with David (Boyd Holbrook), a local artist whose darkened dwelling space and shaggy blond locks the young girls can’t seem to resist. What becomes apparent is that Foner’s allusion is less a genuine offering of revision or reverence, one which would fully account for Truffaut’s formal daring in addition to narrative devices, than a ploy for cinematic capital, in which the film’s mise-en-scène pays lip service to a style that the film itself has little interest in engaging. Manifesting instead is a blandly shot, upbeat film adamant that with a few guitar strums, sporadic skinny-dipping, and tearful honesty, teenage tribulations like sexual awakening, parental dysfunction, and even untimely death can be overcome.
Perhaps more disheartening about Very Good Girls than its unremarkable visual style is that the female leads aren’t given ample space to develop as dynamic characters beyond the most urgent confines of the script’s scenarios. Early in the film, Lilly walks in on her father (Clark Gregg) fooling around with another woman. Instead of locating Lilly’s response through more indirect, contemplative means, it’s swept to the periphery until much later, when she tells him, regarding her parents’ separation, “you could just die and none of this would matter.” Such an obvious attempt at explicating Lilly’s proclivities for hyperbole would be less bothersome were Foner not so gratuitously somber with it, as Lilly stares at the ground while her father drives away, accompanied by the soundtrack’s funereal (quite literally, given the following scene) piano notes.
A few brief moments hint at deeper levels of self-discovery; when Lilly sits on her bed, feeling her breasts as if attempting to reach a greater familiarity with her own body, it’s extracted from the largely histrionic mode informing most other scenes. Likewise, the opening shot of Lilly twirling and dancing, separated from the film’s immediate narrative events, offers emotions unhinged from exposition. Yet Foner too often insists on creaky subplots, most notably one involving Joe (Peter Sarsgaard), a leering co-worker of Lilly’s whose presence merely contributes a third-act excuse for the two girls to become suspicious of the other’s intentions. Moreover, his pervy advances are dawdled with, but then shirked by Foner’s insincere examination of the less seemly motivations driving Lilly’s sexual awakening and, in return, the male gaze that seeks to exploit her vulnerability.
Instead, Foner prefers revelation through forced serendipity, the most cloying of which displays David’s spontaneous artistic spirit, as he photographs a street dancer while Lilly silently weeps in the background. Compounding the goo, Foner intercuts the dancing with the couple’s gentle love making, while the voice on the soundtrack coos: “I held my own, still I rattled your bones.” Mixed metaphors and all, Very Good Girls is too convinced that youthful self-discovery is attainable via tidy checklists to be taken very seriously.