"Girl in Progress," with Cierra Ramirez and Eugenio Derbez,… (Bob Akester, Lionsgate )
As self-consciously precocious teens go, the high schooler at the center of"Girl in Progress"is an exceptionally contrived example. But contrivance is the engine of this young-adult comedy, which pretends to deconstruct storytelling clichés while never really transcending them.
The transparent postmodern manipulation of Hiram Martinez's screenplay revolves around Ansiedad (Cierra Ramirez), responsible daughter to an aimless mother, Grace (Eva Mendes), who had her when she was just a teen herself. Grace is a more gangly, impetuous teenager than her buttoned-down child.
As Ansiedad laments, with anger, not self-pity — in a 3-D class presentation, no less — she's tired of their frequent moves from city to city, and of Grace's lack of focus and serial affairs. Bad-idea boyfriend of the moment is a married gynecologist (Matthew Modine) in whose luxurious house Grace works as a maid, between waitressing shifts at a seafood shack that doesn't quite feel real.
But it's more real than the absurd plan that Ansiedad concocts, setting the film on its unconvincing parallel tracks. Upon learning from her English teacher (Patricia Arquette) about the time-honored coming-of-age tale, she embarks on a self-guided tour of the official adolescent rites of passage, the goal being to leave behind her childhood — and Mama.
It's all about acting out, and acting period. Ansiedad "casts" people for parts in her coming-of-age saga, in which she stars as a goody-goody destined to be corrupted. Helping her set it all up is best friend Tavita (Raini Rodriguez), who must be pushed aside in favor of newer, cooler acquaintances — one of the key tropes that the protagonist helpfully defines, with the wiseass imperiousness of a post-"Juno" movie teen.
After jumping from her chess-nerd pedestal by donning goth get-ups and hanging with the school's reigning bad girl (Brenna O'Brien), Ansiedad plans to take her narrative all the way: She arranges to be deflowered by hotshot Trevor (Landon Liboiron), which will complete her mission and put her on the Bus Out of Here.
Smart girls do stupid things, there's no doubt about it. But Ansiedad's bad behavior is supposed to be both faux and earnest, a premise that doesn't jell. Everything happens with a wink and then tears, as Ramirez's script both mocks and adopts the familiar trajectory of teen-centric tales. That Ansiedad, a device rather than a full-blooded character, resonates at all is a testament to Ramirez's spirited performance, which isn't subtle but does let us see the cracks in the protagonist's smart-aleck armor.
Mendes is charismatic and likable as Grace — perhaps too likable. Conveying Grace's parental blind spots, she doesn't turn her character's single motherhood into an argument for sainthood. Yet she avoids any darker glimpses that would lend a more satisfying complexity to the mother-daughter tension and to the movie's too-neat ending.
Director Patricia Riggen — whose debut feature, "Under the Same Moon," was an immigration-themed drama — struggles to reconcile the story's realism and its self-reflexive angle. Without fuss or condescension, though, she gets across the sense of working people plugging away, even if they're doing it in a story that defies credulity.