As a verité portrait of adolescent life in the city, Girls Town won't get one-tenth the hype of last year's Kids, although it deserves to. The problem from a PR standpoint is that this movie doesn't tell an easily summarized, fire-and-brimstone story about how our nation's youth have gone to hell; it's not the sort of film that inspires critical hyperbole and op-ed hand-wringing. More soulful than tough, and more hopeful than "realism" might otherwise dictate, Girls Town invests a palpable energy in helping its three high-school girl characters--and their counterparts in the real world--rediscover their self-esteem. As the latest entry in the burgeoning genre of girl cinema, it suggests that getting pissed and even taking revenge can be constructive ways for a teenage female to deal with sexism. In so doing, this is--forgive the critical hyperbole--the most unambiguously feminist movie to come down the pike in quite a while. And that's another reason it might have trouble earning adequate attention in some quarters.
Set in an unnamed city near New York (the movie was filmed in New Jersey), Girls Town carries only the faint outline of a plot: A few weeks before graduation, best friends Patti (Lili Taylor), Angela (Bruklin Harris), and Emma (Anna Grace) begin to test out methods of fighting the power after another of their crew, the Princeton-bound Nikki (Aunjanue Ellis), commits suicide. Where the girls of Kids got only those token scenes of dishing about sex before becoming prey, Girls Town is constructed entirely around improvised scenes of teen-girl conversation. The drama piles up gradually through the combination of these vignettes, which were scripted by the three lead actors, director Jim McKay, and co-writer Denise Casano during extensive workshops prior to the shooting.
Ultimately, the question of whether the girls will have to pay for their hard-won knowledge--by driving off a cliff, for instance--supplies a fair amount of tension. But this is hardly a typical Hollywood narrative. "If this was a movie," Taylor's tomboy Patti says at one point, "we woulda shot 50 people by now. We woulda been wearin' smeared lipstick and cryin' 'cause we don't know how to hold a gun." Instead, the friends, after discovering that Nikki had been sexually assaulted by her boss during a magazine internship, impulsively decide to demolish a car belonging to another creep who date-raped Emma. While the school band plays a pep rally in the background, the girls spray paint "RAPIST" on the hood of the kid's Cadillac, and then immortalize their triumph on a bathroom stall--including the drawing of a car and the words "Subvert the Patriarchy," leaving ample space below for girls to write in the names of other rapists.
The strike-back feels liberating to this distaff posse, and even addictive: They proceed to steal CDs and stereo equipment from Patti's abusive ex-boyfriend (John Ventimiglia) and trade them for cash at a pawn shop, and they confront Nikki's attacker (Tom Gilroy) at his place of work. Where a mainstream movie might have bent this material into a didactic "Just Say No" tract, or at least a moral dilemma about whether this is the proper way for girls to resolve their problems (any guesses as to what it would have concluded?), Girls Town leaves it up to the viewer to decide.
The main reason the film can afford to take such an approach is that it owes little to the sensibilities of industry bean-counters. Financed out of pocket by McKay and auteur-producer Lauren Zalaznick (Kids, Safe), Girls Town was shot in 16mm in a mere 12 days. The speed of the production no doubt enhanced the spontaneous vibe on screen, but also would seem essential to getting a script about teen-girl solidarity in the face of rape, set in a working-class milieu and devoid of hasty uplift, on screen at all. Such are the standards even of "independent" filmmaking these days that producing a movie this cheaply, without including marketable elements like sex jokes or guns, is practically a subversive act. Moreover, this DIY aesthetic is central to Girls Town's themes: Not for nothing does the film return repeatedly to the graffiti-filled bathroom stall, as our heroines' no-budget agitprop gradually inspires more schoolgirls to express themselves.
Of its three diverse protagonists, Girls Town primarily takes after the levelheaded Emma, an aspiring journalist who volunteers at a women's shelter, and who gives an autobiographical speech in class about the importance of "seeing what's going on in the world and then communicating your perspective on it." At the same time, the film understands Angela's annoyance with "people who get in my business," and Patti's impractical dream to "win the lotto and get the hell out of this fuckin' town." Taylor's thoroughly believable performance--a hyperadrenalized mix of rage, sudden blushes, and playfully vulgar invectives--helps the movie maintain its spirit of buoyant optimism, complementing the quiet introspection of Grace's Emma and the angry resilience of Harris's Angela. Taylor might be the best-known performer here, but Girls Town thwarts star conventions by spreading its focus evenly across the entire ensemble.
Another of the film's unique elements is its vision of an integrated girls' clique--a deliberate tactic which The New York Times's Stephen Holden saw fit to interpret as a weakness, supposedly because "the ease with which the friendships transcend ethnic and class boundaries seems more fantasy than fact." Maybe so, but this quality reflects the movie's aim to communicate to adolescents rather than about them, and its emphasis on providing possible solutions instead of defeatist sorts of truth. The unfashionable greatness of Girls Town stems from its belief that being "real" isn't enough these days.