Ever since Eva Mendes' startling dramatic turn in last year's Last Night, she's really become more than the zero-sustenance spicy Latina in movies. Thankfully, Hollywood is finally allowing her to shatter the stereotypes of Latin characters in a movie that does just that.
In director Patricia Riggen's coming of age dramedy Girl in Progress, Mendes steps into the role of Grace (better known to her estranged parents as her birth name, Altagracia), a young mom who's still living out her adolescent years well into her thirties. She dons short skirts, blasts loud music, is a serial loser dater, and is disturbingly content in her dead-end job as a crab waitress. Meanwhile, her brainy fourteen-year-old daughter, Ansiedad (Cierra Ramirez), is basically raising herself and getting restless, so much so that she decides to act out her frustration.
In a desperate cry for attention, Ansiedad devises a perfectly pronounced plan to rebel. She starts deliberately hanging out with the wrong crowd, wearing provocative clothing, cranks up rock music in her bedroom, puts on heavy makeup, and ditches school and her lone friend, Tavita (Raini Rodriguez). But her scheme backfires once she realizes, with the help of her teacher Ms. Armstrong (Patricia Arquette), that she's pushed away everything that once made her happy as a teen, and that her mom has failed to take any real notice of any of it.
What's most interesting about the movie is that you'd see this type of story played by actresses like Drew Barrymore or Cameron Diaz, who--according to Hollywood--are the only types of actresses who could play women going through very universal situations. But here we've got two wonderful actresses--who just happen to be Latina--portraying characters to whom we could all relate. At its core, Girl in Progress is an endearing mother-daughter portrait reminiscent of Cristina and Flor in Spanglish that is a little bit Gilmore Girls, mixed with a dash of Mermaids.
Ramirez, in only her second stint on the big screen, charms audiences as she fervently plays out all the stages of what she thinks adolescence is. She makes you love Ansiedad, hurt for her, and laugh with her through each of her phases. You just want to give her that big ole hug she so yearns from her usually absent mother. For those moviegoers who are used to Mendes in films like Training Day or Once Upon a Time in Mexico will especially be pleasantly surprised by the depth of her performance, which she commits to throughout the entire movie. Sure, Grace is a bit erratic, and you just want to shake her sometimes, but Mendes humanizes her as more than just a wild overgrown child. You want her to be better, just as much as Ansiedad does.
The supporting characters played by Rodriguez, Matthew Modine (one of Grace's losers), Arquette and Eugenio Derbez (who stars as Grace's not-so secret admirer, "Mission Impossible"), nicely round out the cast as well. Arquette particularly reminds you that she's still a great character actress who largely goes unnoticed in Tinseltown. Derbez, who also starred in Riggen's underrated debut feature, Under the Same Moon, delivers a similar performance in this film but with limited screen time.
Riggens' sophomore feature, and first American movie, is a definite must-see that will stay your heart long after you've seen it. Let's hope this film helps usher in a new wave of quality films just like it that break barriers in the way we view Latina characters.