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'Girl in Progress' shows a different Latina image

Director Patricia Riggen's family drama resonates, especially with Austin-based group Latinitas

Nancy Flores
nflores@statesman.com

All eyes were on Guadalajara, Mexico-born director Patricia Riggen when her 2007 feature film "Under the Same Moon" pulled off the highest grossing opening weekend ($2.6 million) ever for a Spanish-language film in the United States. Riggen's first feature resonated with audiences across cultures and opened the Hollywood door for her latest film, "Girl in Progress."

The English-language family drama (starring Eva Mendes, Patricia Arquette, Matthew Modine, Eugenio Derbez and Cierra Ramirez) opens today and has already captured local attention from Latinitas, an Austin-based group dedicated to empowering young Latinas. Latinitas co-sponsored the film's Austin screening with Cine Las Americas last month, bringing together about 100 Latinitas youths and supporters.

In "Girl in Progress," a teenage girl named Ansiedad (played by actress Cierra Ramirez, formerly of Disney Channel's "Suite Life of Zack and Cody") desperately devises a misguided plan to abandon her childhood by checking off a list of typical rites of passage that she thinks will put her on the fast track to adulthood. Meanwhile, her single mother, Grace (Eva Mendes), is too busy juggling two jobs and an affair to notice her daughter's troubling transformation.

Bringing "Girl in Progress" to Latinitas' members meant the chance to show the girls realistic images of Latinas on the big screen. "Even at an early age they have an awareness of their lack of presence in media and film and how their presence is skewed and very stereotypical," said Latinitas co-founder and chief operating officer Laura Donnelly Gonzalez. "They do read the messages that they are supposed to be sexy, feisty or criminals, and that's pretty much as far as the American lens has stretched to show what a Latina can be."

For Riggen, it was important that the film convey a message that transcended cultures — one about the complex relationship between teenage daughters and mothers and how to defeat painful obstacles to find the love buried underneath.

When Riggen read the original screenplay, she was immediately attracted to the clever writing and premise, which unfolds like a story within a story as Ansiedad stages her own coming-of-age tale to resemble those she learned about in school.

"It was complicated to make it work in the shoot because the girl goes through all these different personalities — from innocent to geek to bad girl to bully," Riggen said. "She's playing roles within her role, so it was challenging and interesting."

But Houston-native Ramirez's portrayal of the rebellious teen impressed Riggen so much that she said the young actress, who is now on ABC Family's "The Secret Life of the American Teenager," was on her way to a promising career.

The film's short Vancouver shooting schedule — 22 days — made for a challenging six-month project. "There's no room to breathe," Riggen said. "There's just room to shoot and get out," she said, adding that it also left little wiggle room in the editing room. But the project moved forward with Riggen's vision.

"The movie addresses some pretty complex and specific experiences, and they hit it right on the nose with all those nuances that make this a transcendent family drama," Donnelly Gonzalez said. "But it's also unique because some of those experiences are exclusive to this new generation of Latinas in the United States."

Screening the film to Latinitas youths as well as providing the opportunity to participate in a Q&A discussion with Riggen sent a powerful message, according to Donnelly Gonzalez.

"It's not like they hear about Latinas in production or direction. They see the ones in front of the camera," Donnelly Gonzalez said. "These girls are so starved, in some ways, for role models in professions and crafts that they are not exposed to, so to see it humanized and also see a Latina's face and identity (on screen) just blew them away."

Few Hollywood movies, Riggen said, speak to the female experience in realistic ways. More female leadership in some of Hollywood's top jobs, as well as more female directors and writers, would help improve this.

"It's a huge deal for this movie to come out," Donnelly Gonzalez said. "I just don't think that mainstream media understand how little they address the realistic image of a young Latina. She's not in a gang shooting somebody; she's a regular teenager who can be smart, moody and beautiful. Those are the kind of images I know that girls at Latinitas need to see more of."

Contact Nancy Flores at 912-2559.

Rating: PG-13 for adult themes, drinking. Running time: 1 hour, 24 minutes. Theaters: AMC Barton Creek, Cinemark Tinseltown, Cinemark Southpark Meadows, Cinemark Cedar Park, Cinemark Pflugerville.