Friday, May 31, 2013

Girl Fight (Front Street Pictures, Media Nation, 2011)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2013 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The film was an item I recently recorded off Lifetime called Girl Fight, whose page reveals that it was based on a true story — something Lifetime’s promos didn’t mention (they usually do when they show a film with a factual basis, however much the real-life incidents got distorted when they were run through the Hollywood — or, in this case, Hollywood, Canada — meatgrinder) but which I began to suspect pretty early on. This didn’t seem like something writer Benita Garvin could have made up; it’s true that the clichéd backstory of the high-school junior who’s been skipped over and thereby got a reputation as a hopelessly anti-social nerd who will do anything to make it into the popular clique, and the members of said clique who exploit her relentlessly, could well have been her invention, but I daresay she wouldn’t have dared ramp up the intensity level of the conflict if she’d had nothing to go on but her own imagination. In this case, the hopeless nerd is Haley (Jodelle Ferland, who actually delivers quite a complex and sensitive performance that puts flesh on those old clichéd bones), whose parents, Ray and Melissa (real-life couple James Tupper and Anne Heche — yes, that Anne Heche, who’s far more famous for having been Ellen DeGeneres’s girlfriend when Ellen came out than for any of her actual career, though aside from the fling with Ellen she’s been hetero her entire sexually mature life and Ellen herself, years later, said she made mistakes coming out she could have avoided if her partner at the time had been a genuine Lesbian instead of a straight woman taking a brief walk on the Gay side), are constantly throwing boring “parties” for her she hasn’t the slightest interest in. Melissa is a bit more mellow but Ray is all-controlling — and there’s a brief shot from director Stephen Gyllenhaal (father of Maggie and Jake), a cut between Ray looking at his daughter and Haley’s ass swaying as she climbs up a flight of stairs in their house, that throws us a sidelong hint that he’s got an incestuous crush on his daughter (or have I just seen so many Law and Order: Special Victims Unit episodes that I’m reading more sexual undertones in this brief scene than Gyllenhaal and Garvin intended?).

Her rushing into the arms (metaphorically) of Alexa Simmons (a marvelous villainess performance by Tess Atkins) is as much motivated by the desire to get away from those horrendously controlling parents as it is an embrace of the “popular” clique in school — and Alexa and her gang turn out to be real pieces of work, showing up at the restaurant where Haley works as a waitress and bumming money from her to pay their check, also demanding that she cover the cost of the bottle of vodka they sneaked into what was supposed to be an exclusively non-alcoholic party (the condition Haley’s parents insisted on before they gave her permission to go), and finally getting her drunk enough that she doesn’t resist when Alexa and five of her friends decide to gang up on Haley at one of their alcohol-fueled soirées and literally beat the crap out of her, while another member of the clique films the whole thing on her cell phone. The idea is to get their 15 minutes of fame by uploading the girl-fight film to the Internet and letting the rest of the world — or at least the rest of their high school, which amounts to about the same thing in this hermetically sealed existence (ironically enough for a project starring Anne Heche, teenage males seem scarcely to exist during this movie; most films about rivalries between high-school girls motivate them at least partially by jealousies over high-school boys, but not this one — though given how homely most of the actors who play teenage boys in Lifetime movies are, I suspect I’d have found James Tupper the sexiest guy in this movie even if he’d had more competition!) — gawk at and revel in Haley’s humiliation.

The end result is that Haley is beaten so badly she ends up in the hospital, and there are indications she’s going to suffer long-term eye damage. A school official learns of the existence of the video and manages to get the parents of the girl who shot it to turn it over, whereupon the film becomes a series of crises of conscience over whether the girls will actually be prosecuted and whether Haley will be willing to testify against them. At first she won’t — she’s still concerned enough about her “reputation” with her fellow students not to rat them out — then she’s furious and determined she will testify, only at the end of the trial, when she learns that if found guilty her assailants could end up serving life in prison, she relents and urges her parents to accept the plea deal of one-year sentences the D.A.’s office worked out with the girls’ lawyers, but only on condition that Haley’s family agree to it. Girl Fight begins as a pretty ordinary high-school drama but director Gyllenhaal ramps up the intensity as it goes on, and he and Garvin give us so many glimpses of the girl-fight video itself we begin to feel violated by seeing it so often — and Haley’s shifting emotions during the aftermath, and in particular her crisis of conscience over how to deal with a law-enforcement system that seems intent on victimizing her all over again, are surprisingly well done by director, writer and actress. Though the rather milquetoast appearance that made her right for this role will probably be a handicap on other projects, I suspect we’ll hear more of Jodelle Ferland.