Trailer Face-Off: Very Good Girls vs. Affluenza

Published June 5, 2014

Welcome to Thursday Trailer Face-Off, a feature in which we cast a critical eye on two similar upcoming film releases, pitting them against each other across a variety of categories to determine which is most deserving of your two hours. This week: Very Good Girls vs. Affluenza, two films about teenagers coming of age over the course of a summer in New York.

PremiseVery Good Girls tells the story of best friends Lilly (Dakota Fanning) and Gerry (Elizabeth Olsen); two girls hanging out and trying to get laid the summer before college. Gerry is capricious and carefree: “But it must feel kind of good to have a guy want your body,” she says in response to Lilly’s concerns about her creepy Staten Island Ferry boss. Lilly is much more introverted and sensible (she’s going to Yale, the serious-but-still-literary Ivy). On their way back from the beach after a day spent streaking, Lilly and Gerry bump into an older, bohemian ice cream salesman/photographer. Both girls develop a crush, athough Lilly refuses to acknowledge hers. Things get more and more dramatic from then on.

Affluenza is also set on the beaches of New York, albeit in the Hamptons (chic and corrupt) rather than Brooklyn (simple and sentimental). The themes of the film are obvious from the title, a play on the words “affluence” (Money! Riches! Power!) and “influenza” (A sickness!). A naïve youth named Fisher Miller (we hate him already) goes to stay with his much more worldly and glamorous cousin, Kate Miller, for the summer. Kate’s got a rather comfortable life: a fancy house, fancier boyfriend, and a social calendar filled with decadent parties. Fisher tags along; Kate ignores him. When Fisher makes a new handsome friend, Dylan, Kate suddenly becomes interested in her cousin’s life. Things get more and more dramatic from then on. Advantage: Very Good Girls

The DirectorVery Good Girls is written and directed by Oscar-nominated screenwriter Naomi Foner, and marks Foner’s directorial debut. Now in her 60s, Foner’s a pretty cool lady and a film industry veteran; aside from the Oscar nomination (for the 1988 River Phoenix film Running on Empty), Foner is best friends with Jamie Lee Curtis and is the mother of Jake and Maggie Gyllenhaal. Affluenza is the second film from director Kevin Asch. We don’t know much about Asch, but his last film got mediocre reviews so…Advantage: Very Good Girls

The CastElizabeth Olsen and Dakota Fanning are both great; we know this from Martha Marcy May Marlene and I Am Sam, and perhaps some other films as well. Kiernan Shipka (who plays Lilly’s little sister), Ellen Barkin (Lilly’s mother), Peter Sarsgaard (Lilly’s boss), and Demi Moore (Gerry’s mother) are also enjoyable, dependable actors. Boyd Holbrook, who plays the ice cream man David, is having a moment: in addition to Very Good Girls, which debuted at Sundance in 2013, he was in two Sundance Films in January: Little Accidents and Skeleton Twins. The actors in the cast of Affluenza are not as well-known, but still promising and, because of their lesser starpower, perhaps a little more exciting. We’re particularly interested in Bates Motel‘s Nicola Peltz and Boardwalk Empire‘s Ben Rosenfield, both of whom are ready to “break out.”  Advantage: Affluenza

Narrative RootsAffluenza draws on the high school canon of classical literature: a poor kid—the semi-outsider—is drawn into the world of the frivolous and cruel upper class. At first, he likes it. Then he begins to see that everything has its price and so on and so forth.  There’s a pretty and clever, but ultimately materialistic and unreliable girl (think Estella in Great Expectations, Daisy in The Great Gatsby, or Rosalind in This Side of Paradise). And, of course, a rich boy who is not quite what he seems (The Great Gatsby, again; shades of the more sinister Talented Mr. Ripley; probably some Evelyn Waugh novel; and A Separate Peace, because everything preppy and vaguely sinister is based on A Separate Peace).

Foner made a name for herself through 1980s family dramas like the aformentioned Running on Empty: stories about good kids with family troubles who are struggling to stay good kids. Since the late ‘80s, the fashions in the film world have changed; Foner’s style, however, has not. At Sundance, Very Good Girls was criticized as cheesy, clichéd, and overly sentimental: Where was the molly? And the twerking? Do kids in Brooklyn even know the meaning of good, clean fun these days? Is that what Ditmas Park actually looks like? This seems a bit unfair; as Foner explained at the festival, the film was intended as a timeless story of female friendship, and such temporal markers as cell phones, Twitter, and sexting were purposefully left out.

There’s a time and a place for sentimentality, and it’s a Naomi Foner film. If there’s a time and a place for a Fitzgerald knockoff, it’s on the CW.Advantage: Very Good Girls

RomanceNothing is as entertaining as a love triangle, a plot device present in both of these films. In Affluenza, Kate (Nicola Peltz) is torn between her boyfriend Todd (Grant Gustin) and her cousin’s exciting new friend (Gregg Sulkin). In Very Good Girls, David has to choose between Gerry and Lilly, and Lilly gets to choose between her pervy boss and David. Dakota Fanning might be 20 years old, but she doesn’t look it, so forgive us for being a little bit grossed out when she makes out with Holbrook (in his 30s) and Sargaard (in his 40s). Affluenza‘s love triangle is more complicated than gross, and Kate seems genuinely confused.Advantage: Affluenza

The VerdictNeither film is bound to break the box office, but Very Good Girls sounds like a nice day in when you’re not feeling quite yourself.Winner: Very Good Girls

Trailer Face-Off runs every Thursday. For more, click here.