GIRLS TOWN ** 1/2
In "Girls Town" four young women, two black (Nikki and Angela), two white ( Patti and Emma), have their own clique. When they are close to graduating from high school, Nikki, the academically smartest of the lot and a future Princetonian, unexpectedly and inexplicably commits suicide. After swiping Nikki's diary, the surviving three conclude that she had killed herself because she had been date-raped by a co-worker outside the school. His name, Richard Helms, sounds like a dig at politics.
The diary helping, discussions among the trio reveal to them how little they had really known their best friend Nikki, induce self-analyses. bring to light that Emma had also been the victim of a date rape.
The most forceful member of the three, and the oldest one, is Patti, played with unbound energy by Lili Taylor, the star of "I Shot Andy Warhol. " She is a single mother. Her ex-boyfriend Eddie is an abusive brute. She dresses so horribly in bulky overalls that it makes your eyes hurt--not that her friends are fashion models either. Nor is any of the three a looker, which fact reinforces some anti-Hollywood aspects of the movie. (The overalls may be a sign of defiance or seeking and affirming one's identity, like the graffiti of names in the school bathroom).
The trio more or less affirm their feminism in long talks, unstructured and coming to a large degree from sessions of improvisations between the film's director-co-writer, members of the cast, and others. The ladies avenge themselves by trashing the car of Emma's rapist, attacking (not too violently) on the street Nikki's rapist,vandalizing Eddie's place and pawning his TV set.
While "The First Wives Club" is a costly Hollywood Establishment production and "Girls Town" an independent, micro-budget film, and while one is set in ritzy Manhattan and the other in a pronouncedly grungy, working-class neighborhood somewhere in New York, both aim at a female audience, respectively mature and young. And while "Girls," which is by far the better of the two movies --early this year it won the Sundance film festival's filmakers trophy and special jury prize-- it is not without raising some questions.
Both "Wives" and "Girls" have weighty subjects, which the first film chooses to treat as entertainment for the audiences, unlike the second which is eager, serious and heavy on naturalism, "Girls" tries to involve the audience by having it peep and eavesdrop into the concerns of its young women. As this is done mostly through talk, the process exacts the price of inducing some fatigue in the public. No matter how true to life and to the speakers, the improvised, diffuse babbling is of uneven interest to the viewers-listeners. It can hit arid passages, lead to rambling rather than to crystallizing specific points. (The first-time director is a lover of documentary cinema and has a background of music videos).
Art has to go beyond literal reproduction. It must select, prune and structure, ideally in ways that seem to be natural. The organization of "Girls" lacks tightness and simply does not go far enough.
Then there's the Political Correctness factor that balances symmetrically the black and the white girls and shows a remarkably endearing, entirely natural non-consciousness of race. This goes beyond the original quartet. When there are only three women left, another black schoolmate eventually becomes a marginal confidante. There is an additional black-and-white pair of best friends around, with whom the threesome fights.
"Girls" goes way beyond plain old racial harmony and tolerance. Blackness or whiteness matter to the friends as much as the Man in the Moon, which means not a whit. Think about it: this wonderful indifference is taken light-years farther than in any other movie I can think of. It is, for me, the core of the picture, the high point I will remember above all others. Is this genuine? An artifice? Wishful thinking? I cannot tell, but no matter. This is what gives the film its warmth and its positive thinking.
Hard to judge is Nikki's suicide because we have not enough clues. Was it her rape that caused it? Was the rape the last straw in some problems unknown to us? Unexplained too is the original relationship between Patti and Eddie, The lack of antecedents makes it confusing. Was Patti a patsy who, peculiarly, used to put up with Eddie's brutality? Did she become an activist-leader almost overnight, with her pent up feelings and thoughts catalyzed by Nikki's death and the reinforcement of the group?
The film knows its three Rs, race, rape and rap. Its soundtrack adds much female singing of rap. As Jean-Luc Godard might put it in one of his playful but not necessarily meaningful wordplays, remove the "e" and rape becomes rap.
In the movie's mix of weaknesses and virtues add to the latter that "Girls" qualifies for inclusion in the lists of BBNMM, the Bring Back the Ninety Minute Movie Society.