I just watched a movie I’d missed fifteen years ago when it came out – Beautiful Girls, starring a fleet of then-young actors (Timothy Hutton was the eldest at 35, Natalie Portman the youngest – 15 – playing a delightfully prescient thirteen-year-old). Filmed during a Massachusetts winter (Minnesota stands in for the Bay State), the film explores the ins-and-outs of relationships among reuniting friends in a small town. It’s about character. Wow, is it about character – its presence, absence, and fluctuation.
Only one of the male friends has developed a family. The rest are non-committal . . . or not quite ready to commit . . . or sleeping with their now-married high school girlfriend. They’re in limbo, unsure what they want yet not ready to toss in the towel on perfection. Says one, of the models whose photos plaster his bedroom walls, “Supermodels are beautiful girls, Will. A beautiful girl can make you dizzy, like you’ve been drinking Jack and Coke all morning. She can make you feel high, full of the single greatest commodity known to man — promise. Promise of a better day. Promise of a greater hope. Promise of a new tomorrow. This particular aura can be found in the gait of a beautiful girl. In her smile, in her soul, the way she makes every rotten little thing about life seem like it’s going to be okay. The supermodels, Willy? That’s all they are. Bottled promise. Scenes from a brand-new day. Hope dancing in stiletto heels.”
Doesn’t sound much like small-town America talking, does it? That’s one of the attractions of Beautiful Girls – beyond its fine acting and direction, the dialogue is smooth and light-filled, and most of the characters get their soliloquy, their chance to shine. Even the beautiful young women (call it as it is) to whom the guys are moths batting themselves against the warmth of a smile.
At the end, as we expect, some characters have been shaped and changed by events. Some have not – they’re stuck, watching with a slight tinge of wistfulness as their buddies head into adventure. Because avoiding commitment, failing to make a choice, is a self-created prison. You can’t get anywhere if you’re stuck in jail playing hide-and-seek with one heart after another.
Working as I am so much on issues of gendercide in Asia, I was struck by how this movie will be almost unintelligible there, in very few years. The essentially American lives may be tough to understand (few Chinese would drive a snowplow into a car full of angry men), but feelings of love and lust are not. Unless, that is, you have few women to lust after. Unless women have basically disappeared from view. Until your neighbor has an unannounced, unheralded birth at home and then dies from a post-birth infection – something that will become more common as women are hidden from view and given little recourse to education and health care – eliminating one more woman from your society.
In a few short decades, Beautiful Girls may look as alien east of Moscow as Avatar.
It’s a small movie. There are no special effects, no explosions . . . well, no pyrotechnics. As an examination of character, of development, though, Beautiful Girls is so worth a look-see. If you’re still with Netflix despite its recent corporate meltdown, put Beautiful Girls on your queue.