Doing its very best to capture that mixture of dread, unearned nostalgia, and nebulous excitement that accompanies the last couple weeks of a last summer vacation before heading off to college, Very Good Girls starts off inauspiciously enough with its two pedantic and generally self-involved heroines (Dakota Fanning and Elizabeth Olsen) riding their bikes to Brighton Beach to strip completely naked and rush into the tepid waters of Lower Bay. This rite of passage serves as a way to indicate just how much these two young women have to prove, and sets a tone very early for the rest of the film, establishing a critical disconnect between the banal realities that surround our two central characters and the lofty meanings they ascribe to same.
Fanning and Olsen, heading off to different colleges (with very different academic pedigrees) resolve to lose their respective virginities before the end of the summer. The two introduce this pact as a necessity for preparing for college, an almost perfunctory extracurricular that will set them up for success on campus, and the dispassionate way they talk about belies the very strong feelings of doubt and fear that accompany their planned encounters. Emerging somewhat timidly from the gross Atlantic Ocean and quickly getting their clothes back on after pretending to be French to throw some bros of their game, the two ladies make their way to the iconic boardwalk. It isn’t too long before the pair end up running into a good looking young man working an ice-cream cart who also happens to be a photographer with a rad vintage 35mm camera. His sad eyes entreating them to let him take their photograph, it becomes readily apparent that he’s going to be the target for both of the girls’ erotic campaigns. The dramatic conflict of Very Good Girls hinges on the fact that one of them makes this known to the other, while her counterpart neglects to mention it.
For the most part, writer/director Naomi Foner’s tribute to youth and budding romance/sexual activity follows a rote trajectory that begs the question as to why it was made at all. By 2k14 we’ve all become a little fatigued with overt quirkiness in films, the cheap method of garnering empathy for a film’s characters reaching its nadir and thus rendered obsolete no less than 10 years ago by Zach Braff with Garden State. While it’s still possible for some directors to use the quirks and idiosyncrasies of their characters to elucidate something central to those specific characters and their motivations in a given work, Foner chooses (?) instead to merely imbue her characters with signifiers of the kind of upper-middle-class type who’d still proudly keep a Wobbly song-book tucked away in their antique desk. The forcedly unique qualities of Fanning, Olsen, and their respective parents only serve to distract from the wafer-thin structure upon which their story is told.
What rings most true in Foner’s paean to the shedding of her characters’ sexual innocence is how naturally it counterposes the signifiers and shibboleths of young, fairly well-to-do and traditionally left-leaning Brooklynites with the raw, unquantifiable insatiability of early sexual misadventures (or the desire to invent them, as the case may be). Foner’s tribute to youth and reckless abandon falters because of some unfortunately tone-deaf attempts to mine current cultural trends for emotional depth and hipster cred, which sadly only point to how out of touch the director is with life as it is now. There are some ideas and possibilities in Very Good Girls that merit further exploration. Sadly they just weren’t the ones that Foner decided to explore.