Writer-director Sarah Elizabeth Mintz’s debut feature, Good Girl Jane, treads a well-worn path in its portrayal of an innocent teenage girl’s eventual corruption at the hands of “subversive” classmates. The year is 2005, and the titular Jane (Rain Spencer) has recently transferred schools after being the victim of substantial bullying. Understandably guarded in her everyday actions, Jane walks the school halls in a large hoodie that functions as both a literal and metaphorical suit of armor, even as she longs for some sort of human contact and friendship. Her mother (Andie MacDowell) is distracted and borderline antagonistic in a way that only mothers can be, while dad (Gale Harold) is barely part of the picture, unable to consistently fulfill his role of joint custody. When, one day after school, a group of kids asks Jane to borrow her lighter, she perks up like an excited puppy, thrilled with the fact that someone — anyone — is showing her the slightest bit of attention. She joins them for an impromptu gathering that includes drinking and cocaine, although she wisely shies away from the casual drug use. It’s only at a party days later that she is taunted into giving ketamine a try, plunging Jane down a path that sees her life spiraling out of control, ultimately being groomed and manipulated by a 21-year-old drug dealer named Jamie (Patrick Gibson) who takes advantage of her low self-esteem and desperate need for acceptance.
Story-wise, there are no real surprises to be found in Good Girl Jane. Anyone who has ever seen the likes of Thirteen or Euphoria knows exactly where this train is headed, and Mintz does little to shake up that familiar dramatic structure. It’s in the filmmaker’s directorial choices, then, that the film finds purchase, elevating above more pro forma works of this ilk. By this point, the utilization of both handheld camerawork and intricate long takes in an effort to breathe authenticity into a film has become a tired cliché, but the camera here never stops moving, finding new terrain to sweep across in spaces as intimate as vehicle interiors and motel bathrooms. The ever-present potential of such formal flourishes to distract is mitigated by how organically Mintz uses them to convey the interior life of her troubled protagonist, the jittery restlessness and elation she feels when enveloped within her new friend group. When Jane finally gives in to James’ sexual pursuit, the camera first moves in rhythm with their bodies, a reflection of the sensuality Jane feels in this moment, before giving way to jagged and erratic pans that articulate the horrors that Jane is unable and unwilling to see. Sound design is also utilized effectively, with music playing a crucial role as Jane’s savior when times are tough, but slowly fading into silence whenever she is experiencing the human contact she so desperately craves, only occasionally breaking through in muffled bursts.
Unfortunately, at 117 minutes Good Girl Jane is too long by half, a repetitious slog of indiscriminate drug use and bad behavior that becomes numbing long before the end credits. It’s not unlikely that this modality was indeed intentional, a mirror of the deadening effect this new lifestyle imparts onto Jane — a not uncommon strategy that has been used to expressive effect in many a film before — but here it merely saps the film of any sort of dramatic tension. The good news is that Mintz gets stellar work from her entire cast, with newcomer Spencer proving the stand-out, able to ping-pong effortlessly between the various polarities of mood and emotional contradictions her character endures on a loop. What both she and Mintz prove with Good Girl Jane is that they possess considerable take-note potential. They should have no trouble devoting it to a project not quite so shopworn next time out.
Published as part of Tribeca Film Festival 2022 — Dispatch 3.