Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Film Appreciation - Nothing Changes but the Seasons

Cody Hamman reunites with 1996's Beautiful Girls for Film Appreciation.

With his ten year high school reunion looming, Willie Conway leaves New York City and his job playing piano to return to his small hometown of Knight's Ridge, where he intends to spend a couple weeks reconnecting with old friends and finding the answers to some important questions that he's faced with.

At twenty-nine, Willie is at the time of his life when he has to decide whether or not to keep pursuing the musician dream or take a regular job. Things have also gotten serious with his girlfriend Tracy, they've been living together for six months and Willie has to figure out if she's truly the one.

Things aren't great back at Willie's childhood home - since his mother passed away, his father does nothing but sit around the house and watch TV, and spending his formative years around that has caused Willie's younger brother to turn out a bit odd - and most of his old friends in Knight's Ridge are also having confusing times in their lives, clinging to the past and facing uncertain futures.

While Willie is the center of the film, we also spend time with his friends as they figure out their stories.

There's Tommy, nicknamed Birdman, who is so wrapped up in nostalgia for his high school glory days that he's even having an affair with his high school girlfriend Darian, despite the fact that she's now married with a child. He's neglecting his current girlfriend Sharon in the process, and it's causing her so much stress that she's developed an eating disorder.

Tommy co-owns a construction and assorted odd jobs business, which in the winter operates as a snow plowing/shoveling service. His co-workers are a couple of school buddies, the very socially awkward Kev and Paul, who is also his roommate.

The past that Paul is caught up in is with his ex-girlfriend Jan, who recently broke up with him and moved on to someone else. Someone who Paul considers mind-blowingly inappropriate for her. He obsesses over how odd the pairing is; how could Jan move on to a forty-year-old divorcee with three kids, and most boggling of all, how can a vegetarian date a guy who works as a meat cutter? Paul alternates between being vindictive - rather than clear Jan's drive out after a snowfall, he pushes the snow against her garage door - and desperately wanting her back, even showing up at her work with a diamond engagement ring.

Paul is also obsessed with supermodels, and he delivers a monologue about "beautiful girls" that gives the film its title and was lifted by the band Taking Back Sunday for an intro to one of their songs.

A couple of Willie's friends do seem to have their lives together; Stan "Stinky" Womack is now the proprietor of a local inn, Mo is a family man with a wife and two kids... And the possibility of Willie giving up the piano for a sales job is the worst idea that Mo has ever heard.

Willie also makes a couple new acquaintances while he's back home, both female, playing into the relationship side of his quandaries. Both of them are presented as the perfect, ideal girl, but both are unobtainable in their own way. 

One is Andera, Stinky's cousin who's visiting from Chicago. She's a "just one of the guys" girl, she does whiskey shots with them, aids Paul in an attempt to make Jan jealous, has a serious discussion with Willie about relationships. Including the relationship she's in. She's very taken.

The other girl is a neighbor who has moved in to the house next to the Conway's sometime while Willie's been away. She's named Marty, and the interactions between her and Willie are the highlight of the film and the most memorable thing about it for most viewers.

Marty is a thirteen-year-old girl who's highly intelligent and wise beyond her years, "an old soul", and as they converse across their yards with each other, Willie quickly becomes smitten with her in a very chaste way. Willie confides to an unnerved Mo that "This girl is gonna be amazing." Marty also develops a crush on Willie, even suggesting that he wait five years for her and then "We can walk through this world together."

This seems very questionable in basic description and could be off-putting if handled in another way, but due to the way it's presented and the performances of Timothy Hutton as Willie and Natalie Portman as Marty, it totally works. This isn't a creepy pervy Lolita situation, it's a sweet interaction between two sensible characters, and Portman is so endearing as Marty that I've seen people suggest that Willie really should wait for her.

Hutton and Portman are the standouts among a solid ensemble that includes Matt Dillon, Noah Emmerich, Michael Rapaport, Max Perlich, David Arquette, Uma Thurman, Lauren Holly, Rosie O'Donnell, Martha Plimpton, Mira Sorvino, and Annabeth Gish.

The film is well directed by Ted Demme, and with cinematographer Adam Kimmel he perfectly captures the look and feel of small town America in the middle of winter. The movie was shot in the Stillwater, Minnesota area, which looks great on film. I love how the streets in town rise up to the hilltop homes. IAmNotaStalker recently visited several of the locations.  

The movie also has an awesome soundtrack; "Beautiful Girl" by Peter Droge, "The Break Up Song" by Greg Kihn Band, "I Ran" by A Flock of Seagulls, "Suffering" by Satchel, "Graduation Day" by Chris Isaak, "Fool to Cry" by The Rolling Stones, "Beth" by KISS, and more, even a cast performance of Neil Diamond's "Sweet Caroline".

The screenplay by Scott Rosenberg is fantastic. Rosenberg went on to co-write High Fidelity, and like that film this is a very realistic and relatable look at life and relationships. I think most people have known people or situations like those in this film in their lives, and are familiar with that overwhelming feeling of "I really have to get my life together" as they approach thirty, and the disappointment that they haven't lived up to what they thought they'd be.

Beautiful Girls had a relatively small theatrical release in early 1996 and seemed to come and go, but from my experience really reached its audience once it hit VHS. I was twelve at the time, but was very interested in checking it out, as it looked like another movie from Miramax that a fan of Kevin Smith and Tarantino might enjoy. As my mother and I rented the movie, the video store clerk informed us that it was one of her new favorites. I took it home and watched it and it became one of my new favorites as well, and I spread the word, showing the movie to my brother and sister-in law as well as my sister and brother-in-law. Being two years younger than Natalie Portman, I was also able to have a creepy-free crush on her. I watched Beautiful Girls a lot back in the late '90s, and since then I've continued watching it about once a year.

Now that I'm the same age as the adult characters, I can connect with the film in a whole new way. I'm really feeling that I need to get my life figured out immediately, and like most of the characters I have made very little forward progress since high school. This June is the tenth anniversary of my graduation and I haven't done much in these ten years.

I'd like to say that the character I'm most like is Willie, the cool guy with a talent that can take him to success away from his small town, but the fact is that I'm probably most like a combination of Paul, with his ex hang-up and preoccupation with out-of-reach dream girls, and the super awkward Kev. Stuck behind, watching the Willie types ride off and telling them to "Stay cool forever."


  1. I *love* this movie. A total under-appreciated gem.

  2. I never heard of this movie but it does seem like it would be an awesome watch!

  3. The only reason I watched this movie was because I had a huge crush on Natalie Portman in 1996 and I was surprised to enjoy it.

  4. Want to chime in and give thanks to you for taking the time to post this. This movie is my number one favorite of all time. An honest true gem that deserves to carry on and be shared. I will go to sleep with a smile on my face tonight. :-)

    Stay cool, stay cool forever!