Photo courtesy of VIFF
DIR: Wei Ling Chang | The Unlikely Girl| USA/France | 2012 | 96 mins | French/English
Saturday, October 6 6:00pm | Empire Granville 1
Sunday, October 7 12:00pm | Empire Granville 1
Thursday, October 11 2:00pm | Empire Granville 6
In her feature debut, director Wei Ling Chang attempts both pulp and philosophy in the story of a scandalous love-triangle in a small French town.
“The sentence below is true.
The sentence above is false.”
So reads the opening frame of writer-director Wei Ling Chang’s first feature film, The Unlikely Girl. Toying with the idea of truth, The Unlikely Girl presents a provocative and ambitious French mystery, in the vein of Michael Haneke’s Caché. Ultimately, however, the film suffers from same identity crisis that its characters face.
Half pulpy love-triangle, half high-brow philosophical tangle, The Unlikely Girl wavers between film noir and uncomfortable coming-of-age drama–perhaps due to Chang’s own background in reality TV enterprises like “My Super Sweet Sixteen.”
Face frozen in a sour smirk, Hande Kodja stars as Cécile, the prodigal daughter who returns after a seven-year absence to her family’s empty mansion.
Cécile is no longer the short, pudgy teenager the neighbors remember. Yet, this slender and seductive new Cécile is unquestioningly welcomed back, especially by her childhood flame, Luc (Pierre Boulanger).
Cécile’s isolated life in the family villa is checked by the arrival of Jamie (Shane Lynch), a bubbly exchange student from Iowa. Cécile and Jamie clash over the affections of Luc, but eventually they form unlikely allies when Cécile reveals a dark family secret.
The characters hardly progress beyond their cultural stereotypes, creating a false familiarity for audience members. As your typical French woman, Cécile forgoes breakfast in favor of cigarettes, eyeing Jamie cynically over her bowl of cereal. The corn-fed daughter of a pastor, Jamie displays a stereotypical American moral superiority and vivaciousness. While one is the libertine, the other contrasts as the sacrificial virgin.
When Jamie replaces Cécile as the primary heroine, the film flounders a bit. While the audience shares Jamie’s self-righteous quest for truth and her frustration at its result, she ultimately proves to be a less compelling personality than Cécile.
In the character of Cécile, director Chang invests most of the movie’s edginess. A sardonic mirror for the Millennial Generation, Cécile finds herself with neither the talent nor the passion for work, instead relying on Mom to send her money.
Cécile’s self-centered, isolated existence is echoed by the shifting focus in each of the film’s frames. No two characters can be in-focus at the same time. Instead, they seem to exist each in their own haze, sharing the same space but clearly alone and alienated.
This lack of intimacy, even in the face of all the sexual relations happening in the film, fuels The Unlikely Girl’s mystery. Each of the three main characters initially takes the others at face value, and when confronted with such routine cultural stereotypes, it’s hard for the audience not to follow suit.
But as the truth of their self-representations starts to unravel, the characters’ transformations fail to feel revelatory. As audience members, we’re well-prepped for such plot twists by Cécile’s cynical, often solipsist voice-overs.
Cécile casually utters statements like, “If you believe it, then it’s the truth,” and she waxes philosophic on whether her bike, with all its parts replaced, is still the same bike–an brain-teaser ripped from classical Greek texts authored by the likes of Plutarch.
Such an overt dialogue on the nature of truth deflates The Unlikely Girl‘s great potential for intrigue. For a mystery, the film leaves little to the imagination regarding its own moral point.
Yet, for a freshman effort, Wei Ling Chang shows talent for blending grand thoughts with approachably salacious material. The two sexy lead actors create enough distraction for the audience to forget the small but crucial details in the dialogue and stagecraft.
As a result, you are left with an itch to rewind and review the film, to seek out the flaws in its thoroughly crafted symmetry. But behind the film’s attractive exterior, The Unlikely Girl is at least smart enough to plague its audience with the restlessness of no easy answers.
Allison Griner is a graduate student of journalism at the University of British Columbia and has previously reviewed films for INsite Magazine and The Independent Florida Alligator, in Gainesville, Florida. Find her on Twitter at @alligriner.