Beautiful Girls (1996)

I haven’t heard of a good proportion of the films on Netflix, let alone seen them. So increasingly, I find myself just randomly shuffling through its catalogue looking for something interesting.

I came across Beautiful Girls quite by chance. I had started another movie which entirely failed to grab my intention, so much so that I can’t even remember what it was about.

Turning that off, I shuffled onto the Independent Category (which is where I usually end up). I wasn’t particularly enthused by the Netflix write up;

A piano player returns to the small town he left behind as erstwhile friends, lovers and the scary thought of settling down swirl around him.

I only watched it because people actually bothered to rate it and highly (people on Netflix seem to be really harsh when rating things!). So if anyone has bothered to rate a film at 4 or 5, you know it is probably good…

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This is last time you will ever see some of these actors on screen…

Anyway, that synopsis is sort of what the film was about but not really. It’s much more of an ensemble piece, revolving around a group of high school friends about to attend their 10 year high school reunion. While the the piano player’s story is kind of the only one with a true dilemma and resolution arch (the rest being more ‘slice of life’) but that doesn’t actually make it central to the film.

The film is about how ‘beautiful girls’ affect this group of friends or rather, how beautiful girls present some sort of challenge or dilemma for some of the characters to win or overcome. Because actually considering these girls as real human beings apparently isn’t an option.

Willie (Timothy Hutton) is a musician who left the small working class town of Knight’s Ridge after graduating high school. Moving to New York, he found semi-success playing piano and met his long-term girlfriend, Tracy, a successful lawyer.

Willie feels he should marry Tracy but, at the same time, the idea doesn’t excite him leading him feel like he shouldn’t actually marry her. The 10 year high school reunion gives him an excuse to leave New York and return home to try and get some perspective.

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A brilliant actress, probably most famous for being Luke Skywalker’s mum or Thor’s girlfriend…


His ‘beautiful girl’ is Marty (Natalie Portman), a thirteen year old girl. She is a girl on the verge of womanhood and Willie can see her just ready to blossom. She has a youth and vitality he has been missing in his life. He knows his feelings for her are wrong and try as he might to stay away, the temptation is strong…

His high school friends are the two snowplow entrepenurs, Tommy (Matt Dillon) and Paul (Michael Rapaport) and factory manager, Michael (Noah Emmerich). Along with Kev, who works for Tommy and Paul, and “Stinky”, the local bar owner.

Tommy was the ‘big man on campus’ at high school. Nicknamed “Birdman”, he was the football star, dating Darian, the hottest girl at school. Only after high school, he hasn’t achieved anything. He is part-owner of a snowplow company along with his high school buddy (which is presumably seasonal work?). He is dating Sharon, who clearly loves him but Tommy doesn’t reciprocate.

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His ‘beautiful girl’ is in fact Darian, his high school sweetheart. She is married to another man with whom she has a young daughter. She is also conducting an extra-marital affair with Tommy. Tommy wants to recapture something from his glory days and sees Darian as a living trophy.

Paul is the kind of crass intellectual you can only find in indie movies: he’s a guy who spends far too much time thinking up theories about life.

He rants one of his theories at Willie, which kind of sums up some one of the themes of the film (that women are somehow a trophy for these man-boys). To punctuate this, he has a bedroom with pictures of centrefold models all over his walls.

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His beautiful girl is Jan, a waitress he dated until she broke up with him after issuing an ultimatum (the details of which are never revealed, though it is probably the hundreds of pictures of nearly-naked ladies on his wall…). Since breaking up, he has become obsessed with her, to the point of harassment, wanting what he can’t have, just like a child.

All of the characters need to grow up. Take the affable Willie. He explains to Marty that a new relationship is exciting, that falling in love is exciting, but after that fades, you just… exist as a pair. He explains to her that he has plenty of time to experience new relationships and get to the existing part later in life. However, he comes to realise that this is a refusal to grow up and accept that you can’t keep treating people like that.

Tommy similarly comes to realise that Darian doesn’t really care for him. That she will never leave her husband and in fact, she represents a flawed attempt to relive a time that has long since passed.

Lastly, Paul realises that he is being a complete dick to Jan. They are broken up and his obsession over her because she rejected him is childish.

The film sounds misogynistic but it is clear in its message that the guys attitudes are wrong and that the women are not trophies to be won or commodities to be possessed.

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The following exchange pretty much sums up the central themes to the film (which I am going to quote in full because it is worth reading);

GINA: “Yeah, that’s nice right? Well, it doesn’t exist ok. Look at the hair. The hair is long, it’s flowing, it’s like a river. Well, it’s a fucking weave, ok? And the tits, please! I could hang my overcoat on them. Tits by design were invented to be suckled by babies. Yes, they’re purely functional. These are silicon city. And look, my favourite, the shaved pubis. Pubic hair being too unruly and all. Very key.

This is a mockery, this is a sham, this is bullshit. Implants, collagen, plastic, capped teeth, the fat sucked out, the hair extended, the nose fixed, the bush shaved… These are not real women, all right? They’re beauty freaks. And they make all us normal women, with our wrinkles, our puckered boobs, hi Bob, and our cellulite feel somehow inadequate.

Well I don’t buy it, all right? But you fucking mooks, if you think that if there’s a chance in hell that you’ll end up with one of these women, you don’t give us real women anything approaching a commitment. It’s pathetic. I don’t know what you think you’re going to do. You’re going to end up eighty-years old, drooling in some nursing home, then you’re going to decide, it’s time to settle down, get married, have kids? What, are you going to find a cheerleader? Charge it, Mitch.”

TOMMY: “I think you’re over simplifying.”

GINA: “Oh eat me. Look at Paul. With his models on the wall, his dog named Elle McPherson. He’s insane. He’s obsessed. You’re all obsessed. If you had an ounce of self-esteem, of self-worth, of self-confidence, you would realize that as trite as it may sound, beauty is truly skin-deep. And you know what, if you ever did hook one of those girls, I guarantee you’d be sick of her.”

Even Willie, who is ostensibly the good guy of the piece (being the most mature), half-jokingly, contemplates cheating on his girlfriend both with Marty and with Stinky’s cousin, Andera (Uma Thurman).

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Andera is sort of the central narrative ‘beautiful girl’. She has a few scenes with all the men, being the attractive ‘cool girl’ that all the guys want to impress. Paul uses her to make Jan jealous but ruins everything when he tries to kiss her, for example, while Andera and Willie have a moment in an ice shack, the subtext being that they are discussing sexual lust versus romantic love.

She describes her romantic life in Chicago and he describes a sexual fantasy. Andera states that she would rather have the romance. Willie is then jealous of her boyfriend, that he gets to have that romantic life. Andera tells him that there is more than likely a person who feels the same way about Willie and Tracy. And it is this that makes him realise that he has only considered what is lost by commitment and not what is gained.

I appreciate that this review reads more like a Film Studies essay. Thinking about it, its because this is one of those films that, the more you think about it, the deeper it is.

Suffice to say, I think I am little bit in love with this film. It is incredibly clever with some great performances (Natalie Portman in another early role steals every scene) and has a very intelligent, very relevant script.

Scott Rosenberg, writer of this film, also the writer of Con Air (which couldn’t be more different) based some of the ideas and characters on people he knew from the small town he himself came from.

He based Knight’s Ridge on his home town and wanted it to be a stand-in for every other small working class town across the U.S., but specifically the East Coast.

He also had the cast live together for a time, so the actors had bonded before even stepping in front of the camera.

I think that’s why the film ultimately works. It is very real, based on real people,  showing real relationships and set in a very realistic town, telling a story we all probably have witnessed firsthand in some fashion.

The fact that I had never even heard of this film is a travesty. If you haven’t seen it, you really, really should. Plus, it is kind of hilarious that only one of the characters actually goes to high school reunion.

TLDR; “A bunch of man-children grow up in Everytown, USA.


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