Very Good Girls — Review and Interview

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very good girl PHOTOWatching this movie was the most indifferent experience I’ve had watching a film in years. The movie starts with Elizabeth Olsen and Dakota Fanning stripping and running into the ocean. It’s not a nudist beach, and the crowd reacts in a realistic fashion. Most just ignore them, a few teenage guys come over to try to pick up on them.

As they’re peddling their way home from Brighton Beach, they run into the hunky David. He’s selling ice cream, but he’s also that brooding young artist – a photographer that would really rather be in Paris with real artists, than selling snacks that have all these crappy chemicals in them. Guess where he lives? That usual place starving artists in movies live – a huge loft, since those look best on the big screen.

Olsen is smitten, and Fanning isn’t interested. Or is she?

At home, Fanning is living in this WASPy environment. Her mom is played by Ellen Barkin, who looks very Joan Riversesque. She’s a bit controlling. Her father is played by Clark Gregg, who is a doctor working out of their home. That gives them the convenient way of having daughter walk in on him making out with a patient.

The singer/songwriter that Olsen plays has a much more enjoyable home life. Although her parents are hardly in it (did this stuff end up on the cutting room floor?). Richard Dreyfuss is the lefty father that means well, and Demi Moore is their earth mom who looks so thin, you’re actually worried about her health.

David (played by model turned actor Boyd Holbrook) is fond of Sylvia Plath poetry and, well…not saying all that much. So of course, women are nuts over him. Fanning loses her virginity to him, and for some reason, doesn’t want to tell Olsen. Another one of my movie pet peeves – if you’re just honest, all the crap that goes down could’ve been avoided. The story gets even more convoluted when Olsen has a family tragedy occur, and Fanning thinks the best course of action would be to send David over to comfort her. After all, she’s been talking about how hard she’s been pursuing him and that he just doesn’t seem interested.

It makes a little more sense when Fanning decides to hook up with the creepy boss (played by Peter Skarsgaard) that has expressed interest in her. The first 45 minutes established interesting characters, and the second half of the film was lackluster and not very compelling. It got a little clichéd.

One of my complaints about The Notebook is that, despite the leads attractiveness, he wasn’t all that interesting. That’s the problem with the Boyd Holbrook character here, but you can extend that two the two female leads. Women in Hollywood often complain there aren’t good roles for women. Well, a woman (and talented screenwriter) wrote this. There’s really no excuse for this not being a stronger piece.

This is a movie that might be mildly interesting if you catch it on cable one night, but it’s hardly worth the trip to the theatres.

I’m giving it 2 stars out of 5.


Very good girls DIRECTOR USE
(from left) director Naomi Foner, Elizabeth Olsen, Dakota Fanning, Boyd Holbrook

Interview with screenwriter/director Naomi Foner Gyllenhaal


I was thrilled to be interviewing a screenwriter who has done a few movies I’ve enjoyed. She said she didn’t want to answer questions about her kids (actors Jake and Maggie Gyllenhaal), or her ex-husband, who directed two of her films (Bee Season, A Dangerous Woman). Foner has an interesting enough body of work, that it wasn’t a problem to avoid those topics.

Josh Board: What movies have you watched where you just sat there being amazed by the writing?

Naomi Foner: A Separation is a perfect movie to me. I feel like a fly on the wall watching it. Complex people in a very human situation. I also love the work of Almodovar [The Skin I Live In, I’m so Excited, Volver] because he has such compassion for his characters. And Nicole Holefcener [Please Give, Enough Said]. I am a big fan of small movies that are actually dealing with how we fit into much larger issues. If a film makes us feel something we will think about it.

Josh Board: When you adapted Bee Season, how much more difficult is it to work with a previously written piece? Do you have to think about not wanting to tick off the original writer or fans of that piece?

Naomi Foner: I feel as if there is no point in adapting something to film if it doesn’t add a dimension to the experience of the story telling. Just translating it to film is not sufficient. You have to find something in it that is going to make it more than the sum of its parts or it’s not worth doing. Bee Season was particularly hard as it was so much about the voice it was written in and so very literary. In some cases, the images it invoked should have been left to the reader’s imagination. Making them concrete actually diminished them.

Josh Board: My favorite movie of your daughters is Criminal. I loved her subtle acting in it. Such a great movie. I loved your son in Prisoners. The way he did little things like that tic he couldn’t control. If you had to pick a favorite movie of theirs, which would it be?

Naomi Foner: I love them all.

Josh Board: When I watched Losing Isaiah, I remember thinking about the movie Immediate Family which had come out a few years earlier. It dealt with a family adopting a child and the couple that had given it up for adoption wanting it back. Both movies are significantly different, but as a screenwriter, do you worry about things like that.

Naomi Foner: Losing Isaiah was a novel I was hired to adapt. I never saw Immediate Family.

Josh Board: When you were filming Running on Empty, was it obvious that River Phoenix partied a lot? I’m always curious if those around the set notice things like that about actors, especially younger ones. Tina Fey tells a story about noticing that about Lindsay Lohan on Saturday Night Live.

Naomi Foner: River was 18 when he did Running on Empty and he didn’t party at all. He was a vegan and cared a great deal about the world.

Josh Board: How much of a pain in the ass was Judd Hirsch?

Naomi Foner: He was a delight. He was funny and charming and very easy to work with and we are still friends.

Josh Board: How friggin’ thrilled were you that Sidney f***ing Lumet was directing something you wrote?!

Naomi Foner: Extremely thrilled. That movie is as good as it is because Sidney respected every part of the process and included me in every decision. I was amazed at his memorial service to see his body of work listed. He quietly accumulated a lifetime of work that can stand with the best in the business. And he brought out the best in everyone he worked with.

Josh Board: What was the moment like when you got word that the screenplay was nominated for an Oscar?

Naomi Foner: I was really surprised, even though I had already won the Golden Globe. It was before people campaigned or sent out screeners and it was a tiny film, so I didn’t think it had much of a chance. And, of course, I was thrilled and validated.

Josh Board: So, Holbrook and  Elizabeth Olsen have been dating since first meeting on the set of Very Good Girls. Was Dakota Fanning saying “Uh, dude…you aren’t paying attention to the script. It’s me you love, not her?”

Naomi Foner: No one knew until it was over. They are both lovely and I’m very glad that they found each other.

Josh Board: What was it like directing your son-in-law (Peter Sarsgaard)? He plays such a good weasel. In An Education, and has a great look for that type of character.

Naomi Foner:  I asked him to do it because he is a great actor and brings to everything he does a complexity and vulnerability that keeps the character from being one-dimensional. When he says goodbye to Dakota, it’s very moving. A weasel wouldn’t make you feel like that.

[I didn’t think to tell Foner that yes, he was a weasel. More so in An Education, but…he was her boss in Very Good Girls. She’s 16, and he’s giving her alcohol, which is illegal; and he’s making sexual advances and flirting with her even before that — both of those things make you a weasel, especially when you’re a much older man, as well as a boss]

Josh Board: When you have actors with a large body of work, like Richard Dreyfuss or Ellen Barkin – do you name specific movies you liked, the way the fans do when they meet them?

Naomi Foner: Of course. I told them that I loved their work, because I do.

Josh Board: What was the hardest thing you discovered from directing your first film?

Naomi Foner: That you can’t agree to make a movie with limited time and budget when you really need more of each.

Josh Board: When the movie started, I was thrilled to hear Jenny Lewis. I’m a big fan of her music. How did you get her songs into the picture?
Naomi Foner: She’s been a friend for years and we talked about her doing the score from the beginning. I knew she was just the person these girls would be listening to.

Josh Board: I was bothered by you having a Rilo Kiley (Jenny Lewis’ band) poster in her bedroom wall, though. I like looking at the posters the teenagers have on their walls in films. I loved seeing the Jules and Jim poster. Awesome. I just hated seeing the Rilo Kiley poster because I’m hearing Lewis’ songs in the movie. It takes me out of the picture. It would be like casting Debbie Harry in a movie, and she’s a good actress – but having a Blondie poster hanging on the wall. It’s the filmmakers trying to be cute and it’s a distraction.

Naomi Foner: I’ll keep that in mind for the future. Some of it had to do with what we could afford and clear for the money we had and we knew Jenny would allow it. Glad you liked the Jules and Jim. That was written into the script; my homage to that film.

Josh Board: The movie had some amazing moments, but also some very frustrating ones. (SPOILER ALERT) One of my pet peeves in movies is a character not just telling somebody the truth, when it would make it so much easier on that character. I didn’t buy for a second, that Holbrook wouldn’t tell Fanning in a convincing way, that he didn’t sleep with Olsen. He would’ve grabbed her arm and told her exactly what happened, instead of just a vague “Okay, if that’s what you believe.” I understand you couldn’t do that for what you wanted to accomplish, but do you realize, everyone is going to feel the same way I did about that?

Naomi Foner: I don’t agree. I think he was hurt that she didn’t know it without his telling her and he would never have tried to convince her. He would have rather let her go. It was a given for him that she trusted him. When it appeared that she didn’t he was hurt and decided to fold his tent.

Josh Board: If I loved somebody, and they didn’t believe something I said – I wouldn’t just fold my tent up and say ‘game over.’ I’d try to convince them, understanding that sometimes things look a lot different and can be perceived wrong. Who hasn’t gotten that odd phone call from an old girlfriend when the new girlfriend was standing there and saw the name on the phone. You don’t let them walk out without saying, ‘Look, I’ll call her back right here in front of you, and ask her why she’s calling when I haven’t heard from her in three years.’

I love Clark Gregg. His face and voice…just great in every role he’s in. I enjoyed how you wrote the scene with him talking to his daughter in the garage. I am wondering why you didn’t opt to have him give her a hug.  You had to have considered that, and it would’ve made the audience warm up to his character a bit more. It seems like a move a father would’ve done.

Naomi Foner: It’s just not who he was as a character. He is a surgeon. He doesn’t do that. Early on the girls discuss how different their families are. Dreyfuss might have hugged her, but that’s not who he was.

Josh Board: Why would anybody believe that Gregg would’ve been having an affair in his own house (he uses the house as an office)? Nobody is going to believe that would happen, especially with a door not being locked so his daughter could just walk right in. These are things audiences are really going to have a tough time buying.

Naomi Foner: The house was huge and the moment unplanned. And the rule in the house was you didn’t enter the office. Circumstance conspired against that in this case, but I imagined that the patient came on to him and he was caught off guard. And, that he wanted to be found out.

Josh Board: It seems so cliché to have the Holbrook character be the young, brooding photographer. These teen angst characters always seem to be into photography. It’s like the writer/directors want to show us…he’s an artist. He can take amazing photos, and it shows he does have a heart, and blah blah blah. It just sort of bothered me. Did you consider any other hobby/career path for him?

Naomi Foner: No, because the character is based on a real person and a photograph he took. The photograph used to be on the cover of the script. Turned out that we couldn’t use it in the end, but the profession was part of the character by then.

Josh Board: I’ve seen so many movies that have a girl losing her virginity, and not since the one with Jennifer Jason Leigh in Fast Times at Ridgemont High, have I seen one as realistic as the one with Fanning. You conveyed it so brilliantly. It was romantic, but you could tell, a bit uncomfortable for her, too.

Naomi Foner: Thank you. We worked hard for that. Wanted even more of it, but had to compromise a bit. I didn’t have final cut. The idea was to show what it really feels like from her point of view. All the awkwardness and hesitation of the first time. To be as truthful as we could.

Josh Board: I liked the ending of the movie, but I don’t think most audiences are going to. How hard are endings to write?

Naomi Foner: I’m wondering why you think the audience won’t like it.

Audiences can decide for themselves, by checking out the movie Very Good Girls, which this weekend at the Reading Gaslamp downtown.






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