Screenwriter-turned-director Naomi Foner aims to capture what she calls "mythic" memories in her coming-of-age story "Very Good Girls." But little resonates as persuasive, let alone memorable, in the underwhelming sexual-awakening exploits of two Brooklyn friends. Despite a finely wrought lead performance by Dakota Fanning, the drama feels more like the stuff of a mild — and dated — YA novel than an involving exploration of female experience.
As BFFs Lilly and Gerri, Fanning and Elizabeth Olsen have a convincing chemistry, even if Olsen doesn't quite pass as an inexperienced teen just out of high school. Her character is the more outgoing of the two — instigating the skinny-dipping escapade that opens the movie, and pursuing David (Boyd Holbrook), an artist who sells ice cream on Brighton Beach. The girls have set the summer goal of losing their virginity before college, and man of few words David, more a wan symbol than a full-blooded character, looks like just the ticket to Gerri.
But it's Lilly he goes for, using his photography — and, in a cringe-inducing moment, Sylvia Plath's poetry — to seduce her. In a baffling turn of events that feels like something out of another era, they hide their ensuing relationship from Gerri, setting up a lukewarm chain reaction of betrayal and redemption.
Foner, who wrote the keenly observed "Running on Empty," has assembled and mostly wasted an impressive supporting cast, including her son-in-law, Peter Sarsgaard, and, as parental-unit caricatures, Clark Gregg, Ellen Barkin, Richard Dreyfuss and Demi Moore.
Around the smooth edges are glints of something sharper: the sexual precociousness that Catherine Breillat has dramatized indelibly in such films as "36 Fillette." Foner's smart/naïve good girls retreat to safer territory, where the reassuring center does not hold. It rings hollow.
"Very Good Girls."
MPAA rating: R for language and sexual content.
Running time: 1 hour, 31 minutes.
Playing: At Laemmle's Music Hall 3, Beverly Hills. Also on VOD.