The problem with so many teen movies is that they shape themselves according to shallow extremes of adolescent feeling, and specifically of young romance. There’s perhaps no greater period of emotional potency than adolescence, a time of life typically ill-understood by those living it, and one which frequently filters experiences through the melodramatic poles of misery and ecstasy. In translating this tricky phase of life to film, however, this vast spectrum of feelings often seems flattened on screen, few shades of grey presented in angsty stories of love, loss, and betrayal. The best films of the (rom-)com coming-of-age sub-genre seek to add dimension to this histrionic transitional time, building gradients of nuance into a period of life commonly experienced as an apocalypse of emotional stimuli. There are, of course, ways to overcome a lack of meaningful character-building in such films — through aesthetic or structural inventiveness, comedic bona fides, etc. — but few work so well.
Mai Makino’s Inbetween Girl splits the difference. The film breaks from studio properties in its sheen-free delivery: there’s no pat romantic resolution, no duckling-to-swan transformation for the sort-of tomboy lead (at least not in a makeup-makeover sense), but there is a fairly clear-eyed approach to creating characters that don’t entirely conform to “types,” and blunt confrontation of culturally-bred forms of young male manipulation. This all lends an unpolished, non-Hollywood vibe to the work, even sidestepping the indie dramedy shimmer common to festival films. It also features some legitimately great edits, an unsexy bit of technical craft far too rare in this kind of typically paint-by-numbers filmmaking. There’s an authenticity to the work, a distinct, throwback personality — to the point of seemingly even trying to reassert the word “bang” as sex verb of choice — and it’s all anchored by a remarkably assured and charismatic debut from Emma Galbraith as Angie, a sort-of wallflower who both imparts and sustains pain from her high school peers.
But while Inbetween Girl welcomingly centers on a no-bullshit, willfully confrontational young woman, its peripheral character affectations accumulate to its detriment. These are teens that listen to old-timey jazz records, Gen-Zers who record diaristic entries on what appear to be VHS tapes (based on the quality anyway), and who fire off such jargony quips as, “Must you always shove your dick in an orifice?” It’s one thing to avoid the tepid dramatics of any number of new teen flicks available on any number of streaming platforms each week, but it’s another to still succumb to bouts of preciousness and such bland laments as the “nobody wants to know the real me” nature of social media. Plenty is implied in the film’s title — Angie is in between parents who just separated, in between a couple who is dating, in between childhood and adulthood. Unfortunately, the modifier readily applies to the film’s quality as well, and despite some welcome deviations from the teen sheen formula, the film lands somewhere in between commendable and disappointing.
Published as part of SXSW Film Festival 2021 — Dispatch 5.