The Secret Life of Girls
These days, the phrase 'American Independent Cinema' seems restricted to the Coen and Farrelly brothers, with occasional nods to Neil LaBute and Tod Solondz. But the 1999 Seattle International Film Festival programmed 26 actual recent American independent films, plus seventeen documentaries. As you might imagine, the quality varied from fine to awful, sometimes in the same film.
A good example of that last is Holly Goldberg Sloan's "The Secret Life of Girls," a beginning-to-come-of-age kind of comedy set in 1973, when fifteen-year-old Natalie (Majandra Delfino) and her best friend Kay (Meagan Good) must suffer through the mortifications that come from a) her mother's (Linda Hamilton) insistence that the sixties will never end so long as she can keep wearing summer-of-love schmattes and collecting junk; b) the discovery that her college-professor father (Eugene Levy) is having an affair with a student; and c) trying to figure out how to have a successful crush of her own on a college boy.
The setup is fine, but Goldberg Sloan, who wrote as well as directed the film, is a shaky artist in both disciplines. First the good things: Delfino is a delicious find as Natalie (she's getting her own television series this fall). She carries both the wit and the angst easily on her shoulders. We love her, we admire her gutsy way of handling her mother, her pothead slob older brother, and her completely inappropriate father, without descending to caricature or slapstick.
We can also love her kid brother, an absolutely adorable eight-year-old who is never without an outrageous yet perfectly plausible hat on his head. And we can love some lines and moments, scattered like roman candle bursts throughout the film, as when Natalie confronts her father about the affair, in front of his psychology lecture class.
What we can't love is a script that sometimes hammers us with the obvious, and serious cases of overacting by the two cast names -- Hamilton and Levy. Hamilton, as the mother, leans into her lines as though she's afraid we won't get it if she doesn't emphasize every word, which destroys any hope of maintaining the light and witty qualities of the film. And Levy, in an underwritten and clichéd role, reads every line as though he were fighting his way through a machine operator's manual. Both of them play against the script, and the film comes close to dying whenever they're on screen.
Goldberg Sloan's inexperience as a director shows here, as she obviously didn't get the performances she wanted or needed from the two names, and her writing problems lead to a wobbly point of view that's constantly shifting from one side -- a witty perspective on a dysfunctional family -- to the other -- real human beings in crisis over a breach of faith by one of them. Unfortunately we don't get two fine films for the price of one, but one film that suffers from being split in two.