A terrific ensemble cast brings this film to life, which focuses on the difficulties some face in making that final, `mental' leap from adolescence to adulthood, and spend way too many years trying to sort it all out. As one of the characters so tellingly puts it at one point, `I'm not anywhere close to being the man I thought I'd be--' and the denial, that failure to accept the fact that time stands still for no man, and the inability to choose which path to take when you hit that inevitable fork in the road, forms the basis for director Ted Demme's examination of how human nature affects the process of maturating, in `Beautiful Girls,' a drama featuring Timothy Hutton, Matt Dillon and a young Natalie Portman.
Willie Conway (Hutton) is back home in the Midwest for his high school reunion, but more than that, to try and make some decisions about his future. He finds that nothing much has changed-- the town, or his old friends, most of whom seem to be exerting more time and energy attempting to cling to what was, rather than moving on with their lives. Tommy Rowland (Dillon), for instance, the high school `hero,' as it were, now drives a snowplow; for all intents and purposes, his life `peaked' in high school, and he can't seem to get past it. Then there's Paul (Michael Rapaport), who just doesn't seem to want to grow up; after a seven year relationship with Jan (Martha Plimpton), he refuses to make that final commitment-- after all, `What's the rush?'
All of which does nothing to help Willie with his own dilemma; the only words of wisdom he gets from anyone, in fact, come from the precocious thirteen-year-old, Marty (Natalie Portman), who lives next door. But in a couple of days, Tracy (Annabeth Gish), the girl Willie `thinks' he wants to marry, is due to arrive from Chicago, so it's time to move beyond the crossroads; for Willie, it's decision time.
Demme delivers a story that just about everyone in the audience is going to connect with on some level, because everyone's gone through (or will go through) these kinds of things at one time or another. Who hasn't experienced, if only for a moment, that sense of either wanting to stay as they are or going back to what they were, when life was better, or at least simpler. Or more fun. Working from a screenplay by Scott Rosenberg, Demme examines the relationships between this eclectic group of individuals in a way that offers some insights into human nature that will no doubt elicit some reflection on the part of the viewer. It all points up that, no matter what it may look like on the surface, underneath it all we're not so different from one another; we all share that common bond of learning life's lessons one day at a time, albeit in our own particular way, which corresponds to who we are as individuals. And Demme succeeds in telling his story with warmth and humor; by tapping into the humanity at the heart of it all.
The story may focus on Willie, but the film is a true ensemble piece, realized as it is through the sum of it's many and varied parts. It's a talented cast of actors bringing a unique bunch of characters to life that makes this film what it is, beginning with Hutton, who anchors it with his solid portrayal of Willie, a challenging role in that Willie has to be an average guy who is unique in his own right. The same can be said of Dillon's Tommy, in whom traces of Dallas Winston from `The Outsiders' can be found; Tommy is, perhaps, just Dallas a few years later.
Mira Sorvino gives a memorable performance by creating the most sympathetic character in the film, Tommy's girlfriend, Sharon. This is the girl who was never going to be prom queen, and who up until now has lacked the self-confidence necessary to create a positive environment for herself. Lauren Holly, meanwhile, succeeds with her portrayal of Darian Smalls, the absolute opposite of Sharon, a young woman who is probably too positive for her own good and who lives the life of a perpetual prom queen, an individual who-- as another character succinctly puts it-- was `Mean as a snake,' back in the day. Good performances that add a balanced perspective to the film.
There are two performances here that really steal the show, however. The first being that of Michael Rapaport, who as Paul so completely and convincingly captures the very essence of an average Joe with not too much on the ball, no prospects for the future to speak of, but who is, at heart, a good guy. There's humor and pathos in his portrayal, which personifies that particular state of being the film is seeking to depict. Excellent work by Rapaport, and decidedly one of the strengths of the film.
The most memorable performance of all, however, is turned in by Natalie Portman, who at fifteen is playing the thirteen-year-old Marty, the girl mature and wise beyond her years (`I'm an old soul,' as she puts it), with whom Willie forms a kind of bond as she, in her own way, helps him to sort out his feelings and find his focus. Portman's performance here-- some three years before she would forever become Padme Amidala-- exhibits that spark and charismatic screen presence that has served her so well since, in films like `Anywhere But Here,' and `Where the Heart Is.' She has for some time been, and continues to be, one of the finest and most promising young actors in the business.
The cast also includes Noah Emmerich (Mo), Rosie O'Donnell (Gina), Max Perlich (Kev), Uma Thurman (Andrea), Anne Bobby (Sarah) and Pruitt Taylor Vince (Stanley), all of whom help to make `Beautiful Girls' a memorable and satisfying cinematic experience. And that's the magic of the movies. 8/10.