‘Good Girl Jane’ Review: Sarah Elizabeth Mintz’s Piercing Debut Tracks The Grooming Of A Young Teenage Girl [Tribeca]

Set in the Fall of 2005, Sarah Elizabeth Mintz’s piercing feature debut, “Good Girl Jane,” tracks the grooming of the title character (Rain Spencer), Jane, an outcast teenager enduring an endless summer that nearly undoes her. 

Jane and her older sister Izzie (Eloisa Huggins) have recently transferred to a new school. The popular girls look down on Jane, and the kids from her old school still bully her with spiteful messages online. Her parents: Andie MacDowell and Gale Harold — are detached, with her mother more focused on her small business and cellphone than her own daughter. Jane hides away from the world under her oversized hoodie and in the punk music on her computer. She soon falls in with a crew of drug-addled teens supplied by the noticeably older Jamie (Patrick Gibson), who immediately takes an interest in her.  

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On its face, “Good Girl Jane” reminds one of Jamie Dack’s Sundance coming-of-age drama “Palm Trees and Power Lines” and, on a superficial level, Sean Baker’sRed Rocket” — two films concerning charming, older men grooming young girls. But it’s Mintz’s intense and bracing gaze that allows her to chart her own singular path for a bleak, pointed portrait of self-destruction, crumbling mental health, and the crumminess of men.

Mintz’s prodding visual language invites a fatalistic tone. Her DP Jake Saner utilizes handheld shots while editor Harrison Atkins (“Madeline’s Madeline”) opts for long takes, suggesting a vérité aesthetic. The woozy lens, peaking and swirling around the subjects, blends reality. The camera can obscure the truth, such as the whip pans that render Jamie’s face featureless or reveal the truth: the way Jane’s appearance withers as her drug habit takes hold. It also leaves us powerless as Jane sinks lower under the influence of Jamie and the cocaine and meth he provides.

Mintz’s purposefully dated script easily zaps viewers back to 2005, not just with regard to costumes or sets or mixtapes but the unique pressures faced by teenage girls at that time, which have only grown since. The film demonstrates the ways technology, specifically the internet, brought new methods of tormenting those who feel the most lonely. MacDowell’s aloof character is similarly written like a late-90s television mom, one so lacking the tools to help a daughter dealing with anxiety, unhealthy power dynamics, and controlled substances, she ultimately deepens Jane’s troubles. 

“Good Girl Jane” never shies away from the viciousness of Jane and Jamie’s relationship. The latter cajoles the teen, leveraging his sexual domination into drug-rattled devotion. One depraved scene sees Jane trying to break up with Jamie after seeing that he deals drugs to a mom with babies. While driving on a freeway, his silence is enough to cause Jane to offer her body for forgiveness. Mintz’s smart script, based on her early life, when she was a 15-year-old addicted to meth, purposely renders Jane’s adoration for Jamie as never the result of one factor. It’s every heartache in Jane’s life that leaves her vulnerable.  

If there’s a false note in Mintz’s coming-of-age film, it’s how unlikable Jamie is from the jump. While he doesn’t necessarily need to be charming, cocaine and his Irish accent are his allure, and Jane’s isolation is her weakness, the teen falling under his influence, to the point of misplaced love, doesn’t totally cohere. Even so, Gibson pulls it all together with a brutish intensity that should make any audience feel just as vicious toward him as his character is toward others. Gibson is simply remarkable. 

And yet, Spencer somehow matches him in a star-making performance. Her physical presence, reliant on a knowingly distressing rigidity, is advanced and precise. Early on, you get the sense that only a blind loyalty to her no-good father holds her together. Later, it’s the drugs. And later, it’s barely gravity itself. Spencer is open and raw, which says everything about Mintz’s ability to give comfort to her actors so they might give unencumbered performances.  

The film probably ends on an overly optimistic note (especially in relation to the searing conclusion to “Palm Trees and Power Lines”). Maybe that’s because Mintz knows that she, herself, came out on the other side. Even so, much of the film is unflinching. The sharp work Mintz, Gibson, and Spencer accomplish in “Good Girl Jane” is good indeed. [B+] 

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