Blog Directory CineVerse: Coming of age part 2

Coming of age part 2

Wednesday, April 24, 2024

Directed by Ted Demme, Beautiful Girls works about as well as you’d expect for a romcom from 1996, unfolding in a quaint Massachusetts town. At its core is Willie Conway, portrayed by Timothy Hutton, navigating the maze of love, connections, and the complexities of adulthood during a reunion of his high school days. Returning to his roots prompts Willie to ponder his journey, fostering renewed bonds and romantic interests, controversially with a 13-year-old neighbor, portrayed by Natalie Portman. The movie delves deep into the dynamics of male friendship, the hurdles of growing up, and the pursuit of personal contentment.

To listen to a recording of our CineVerse group discussion of Beautiful Girls, conducted last week, click here.

While it was never going to set the cinematic world on fire, Beautiful Girls has a few facets in its favor. The cast is impressive, featuring Timothy Hutton, Matt Dillon, Natalie Portman, Uma Thurman Rosie O’Donnell, Mira Sorvino, Lauren Holly, and Michael Rapaport. This is a pretty deep bench. The film also can be applauded for an assumed authentic depiction of small-town life and the characters that may populate this kind of blue collar hamlet. The plot doesn’t veer strongly into any sociopolitical statements about everyday Joes making do in hard times, as one might expect considering this setting, but the personalities and their situations and motivations seem plausible.

That being said, several elements haven’t aged gracefully. The subplot between Willie and Marty is groan-inducing now, in the post Me-Too era and considering 21st-century society’s intolerance of relationships or infatuations between an adult and a minor. The candid boys club talk in which they grade women’s appearances and engage in “tits and ass” banter also dates this film. So does the revenge plot involving Tommy’s friends striking back at his attackers. It’s also a black eye badge of dishonor that the movie was co-produced by Harvey Weinstein; Mira Savino, Uma Thurman, and Lauren Holly had accused Weinstein of inappropriate behavior, and Timothy Hutton himself was accused of rape years ago, although his name seems to have been cleared.

Thematically, this is a “coming of age part two” type of picture. Beautiful Girls is a treatise on how difficult it can be for men to commit to a mature relationship, be willing to settle down, and accept that their partner almost certainly will not be perfect. Willie is attracted to Andera and intrigued at the prospect of waiting several years for 13-year-old Marty, but Willie will likely end up with Tracy – a wonderful catch who may not check every box but who can undoubtedly make Willie happy if he takes his relationship blinders off. We hear Andera tell Willie in her final scene that he’ll see her again, but the audience never does, suggesting that Willie can find within Tracy what he was looking for in a woman like Andera. And Willie’s farewell to Marty at the conclusion telegraphs that he’s ready to “put away childish things,” say goodbye to fantasized romantic notions, and live in the now with a loving partner of his generation. Per Roger Ebert: “Somehow, doggedly, true love teaches its lesson, which is that you can fall in love with an ideal, but you can only be in love with a human being.”

Viewers can also admire how the movie examines how advancing age and maturity impact long-time friendships. We see how townies like Paul, Tommy, and Kev have become entrenched – if not stuck – in their geographical and emotional locations. Willie returns home for his class reunion and finds that he can still bond with the buddies he had left behind, but most of them have not progressed emotionally. Willie can look to his friend Mo as a possible role model for how to transition somewhat gracefully into marriage and fatherhood, although Willie is not sure he’s ready for that leap.

The title may suggest Beautiful girls, but the boys are not so beautiful. This film, even if inadvertently, offers portraits of toxic masculinity and showcases the often petty superficiality and small-town community acceptance of selfish and shallow males and “bro” culture. Nearly every female character proves to be smarter, more emotionally intelligent, and more sympathetic than their male counterparts.

Similar works

  • The Big Chill
  • Nobody’s Fool
  • About Last Night
  • Mystic Pizza
  • The Brothers McMullen
  • She’s the One
  • Feeling Minnesota
  • St. Elmo’s Fire

Other films by Ted Demme

  • Blow
  • Life
  • A Decade Under the Influence
  • The Ref

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