Monday, July 24, 2017

Story of a Girl (Random Bench Productions/Lifetime, 2017)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2017 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

My “feature” last night was a Lifetime premiere showing of a film called Story of a Girl, which was not only better than the usual run of their movies but better than the previews for it had made it look. The credits, at least, made this look like a prestige production: the director and co-producer was actress Kyra Sedgwick, her husband Kevin Bacon and their daughter Sosie Bacon were both in the cast (albeit not in the leads), and the story was based on a highly regarded young-adult novel by Sara Zarr published in 2007 which was a finalist for that year’s National Book Award and made the 2008 American Library Association’s list of Best Books for Young Adults. The promos for the film made much of its most salacious detail: three years before the main part of the film takes place, its central character, Deanna Lambert (played by Ryann Shane through most of the movie but Bailey Skodje in the flashbacks), then just 13 years old, had sex with her boyfriend Tommy Weber (Tyler Johnston, just the right sort of decent-looking but not drop-dead gorgeous young guy Sedgwick and her casting directors, Ann Goulder in the U.S. and Jackie Lind in Canada, should have picked). Tommy filmed them with his smartphone and the clip ultimately ended up on the Internet and “went viral,” instantly giving Deanna the image as a “slut” — indeed, quite a few online social-media posts about her denounce her whole family as “trash” — and also getting her father Ray (Jon Tenney) relentlessly angry at her. She’s not the only member of her family who got into trouble over sex: her older brother Darren (Iain Belcher) got his girlfriend Stacy (Sosie Bacon, who according to was pressed into service by her parents after Mary-Kate Olsen, whom they’d originally cast, decided to withdraw from acting completely to concentrate on her and her sister’s fashion business) pregnant, and as a result both had to forsake their dreams of going to college and stay in the small beach town whose location is unspecified (the Wikipedia page on the book Story of a Girl specifies the locationt as Pacifica, California, though it looks like New England, especially given the shots of seagulls Sedgwick inserts at various points for atmosphere) but which is portrayed throughout the movie as a place where dreams (and dreamers) go to die.

They’re currently living in the Lamberts’ basement and raising their baby, April, and Ray Lambert is crabbing almost constantly about their presence as well as the likelihood that her daughter, with her presumably “loose” sexual morals, may also end up “with child” — in some ways Ray is the most unsympathetic character in the film, essentially Archie Bunker without the charm. As for the mother, Debbie (Caroline Cave), she’s pretty much just along for the ride; her attempted “solution” to the domestic disputes swirling around her is pretty much to try to corral her errant kids around the breakfast table and make them deliberately “homey” specials like French toast and oatmeal. Things heat up (in more ways than one) for Deanna when she decides she wants a job — she’s in the second year of high school but it’s just about to let out for the summer and she wants to make enough money that she can get a place of her own; she’s counting on Darren and Stacy to move out as well so the three can live together without her parents around — and she goes to the various coffeehouses and food places around town. At one she’s told by the counter boy, who’s barely older than she is, that she looks familiar, and she snipes back, “Maybe it’s my online sex video.” “You’re going to have to work on your interviewing skills,” says her Black friend Lee (Naika Toussaint), whose boyfriend Jason (Andrew Herr) is Deanna’s favorite (but strictly platonic) soulmate and sounding board. Eventually Deanna does land a job with Craven Pizza, whose owner Michael (Kevin Bacon) is first shown lying out on a couple of chairs inside his establishment — it’s closed at the moment so he figures he can behave any way he likes, including smoking inside — with no shirt or shoes on. At first we figure he’s going to hit on our heroine, but eventually he turns out to be the most decent man in the movie (I guess that’s the role you get for sleeping with the director!) and the one male from whom Deanna’s virtue is in no threat, mainly because he’s Gay (though, as usual with movie Gays, we’re just told that: we never see him in any romantic, emotional or sexual relationship with a man).

Deanna’s real sex-related problem at work is Tommy Weber, who by luck (or Sara Zarr’s authorial fiat) also works at Craven Pizza (which got its name from Michael’s love of recent horror films in general and Wes Craven’s work in particular[1]), and he’s too good a cook for Michael to risk losing him, so Deanna puts up with the cold war around Tommy (who makes it clear he’d like to screw her again) and also the snide sexual comments of the male patrons who congregate at Craven Pizza for beer pitchers and pizza (in that order of importance — it’s obviously the sort of place that has a “with food” beer-and-wine license but to many of its customers the food is clearly just a pretext to get the drinks). Lee goes off on a summer spiritual retreat (Sara Zarr’s Wikipedia page reveals she grew up in a Fundamentalist Christian household and she’s contributed to an anthology by writers who had that experience) and Jason, who’s previously confided in Deanna that he wants to have sex with Lee but so far she’s put him off, suddenly finds himself on the receiving end of an unwanted sexual advance from Deanna (who we get the impression hasn’t had sex at all since the viral-video encounter with Tommy), who gets as far as unbuckling his belt before he tells her to stop. The other big thing that happens is that Stacy, tired of both figuratively and literally being cooped up in that basement with her and Darren’s baby, has Deanna dye some red streaks in her hair. When Darren doesn’t notice, Stacy uses this as an excuse to disappear for two days, sticking Deanna with April and not telling anyone where she is, or with whom. She eventually comes home the worse for wear, and there’s a crisis in which she and Darren have an argument but eventually reconcile and move out, albeit without Deanna. In the end Deanna and her dad also reconcile and he, an auto mechanic at a car lot, helps her pick out her own car, which she buys with the money she saved up from her summer job at Craven Pizza.

Story of a Girl, written by Laurie Collyer and Emily Bickford Lansbury from Zarr’s novel and quite effectively directed by Sedgwick ­— who has the usual actor-director’s gift for getting understated performances from her cast (one shudders to think what one of the usual Lifetime hacks would have done with this story and how much scenery the actors would have been allowed to ingest) and also has a quite sensitive camera eye — is not only a more psychologically and emotionally complex story than the Lifetime norm, it’s given a quiet, dignified, mostly unsentimental presentation here that emphasizes the story’s theme that the beach town where it takes place is a place where dreams go to die. At one point Deanna tells Lee that she will have a chance to break out of the town, go to college and make something of her life, while Deanna, her brother and his girlfriend, and Lee’s own boyfriend Jason are just going to be trapped there for the rest of their lives. Later Michael makes his own sad confession, saying that decades earlier he had gone to Stanford but dropped out during his sophomore year because “I just didn’t like doing homework,” and after that he was married to two different women, both of whom he loved non-sexually but ultimately left because he knew the whole time he was Gay. The big surprise twist at the end is that it was actually Deanna, not Tommy, who posted their sex video to the Internet three years previously: after they finished Tommy stepped out of the car where they’d done it to pee, and Deanna grabbed his phone and e-mailed the video to three of her friends with the legend, “OMG! I just DID it!” — not thinking that it would go any farther and end up wrecking her life in general and her relations with her dad in particular. Story of a Girl is probably the best thing I’ve seen on Lifetime since Speak (also based on an acclaimed young-adult novel and also about an alienated teenage girl whose life was ruined by a sexually predatory male, and which starred Kristen Stewart before she did the Twilight movies and was so good it made me want to see the Twilight cycle), and I certainly hope the Bacons will get to make a few more films like this and their marvelous collaboration in the 2004 The Woodsman.

[1] — It was called “Picasso Pizza” in the novel.