15 September 2002 | Buddy-51
an offbeat gem
Jennifer Anniston gives a beautiful, heartfelt performance in `The Good Girl,' a film totally in tune with the rhythms of everyday life. Anniston' Justine Last is just one of the many people inhabiting this Deep South, Bible Belt town who find themselves leading lives of quiet desperation, imprisoned by the dreary sameness of their daily routines. Justine works at one of those generic five-and-dime drug stores that so define the culture of Middle America. Yet, Justine's job and work environment are not the only sources of her frustration. She is also married to a well-meaning but dull blue collar worker who would rather spend the evening sitting on the sofa getting stoned with his partner than engage in any meaningful relationship-building with his wife. At the age of 30 then, Justine is ripe for some kind of life-changing experience when in walks Holden Worther, an introverted, obviously disturbed young co-worker who sees in Justine the very soul mate he has been searching for all his life, a person who will understand him and share his hatred for the life they are both leading.
`The Good Girl' is really about the contrast between what we would like our lives to be and what they really are. Justine knows that the `easy' choice would be to pull up stakes and simply run away with Holden, abandoning a town, a marriage and a husband she has come lately to both abhor and despise. Yet, something keeps Justine rooted to the spot, something that makes her understand that any decision she makes will end up hurting someone in the end besides herself. Perhaps she sticks around because she realizes that, for all his faults, her husband is, in reality, a pretty decent guy overall and that he really does love her. Perhaps she also realizes that Holden is more mentally disturbed than she is willing to admit and that whatever life she might have with him would only mean exchanging one set of troubles for another. Credit the Mike White screenplay with exploring the complex nature of the film's characters and relationships. We never quite know where the story is headed or how all the issues will get resolved - if at all. As in real life, the story here keeps bumping up against new and ever more challenging complications and, because we can identify with the messiness, we are eager to go along with it wherever it chooses to take us. The film also does a fine job showing how life takes wholly unexpected turns at times, such as when a fairly major character dies unexpectedly. The casual suddenness of the death throws us for a loop since we so rarely see death portrayed that way in the movies.
Miguel Arteta's deadpan, matter-of-fact directorial style brings out the black comedy richness inherent in the material. Amid all the pain and sadness, there are a surprising number of genuine laughs in the film as we see our own lives reflected in the people and incidents there on the screen. Actually, the film reminds us a bit - in its music, its use of voiceover narration and its unromanticized view of rural life - of Terrance Malick's great 1973 film, `Badlands,' a landmark in independent American filmmaking.
Anniston, who is probably in every scene in the film, carries the picture with her rich and highly empathetic performance. Even though her character is a woman slowly becoming deadened to the world around her, she still retains that spark of life and that absurd hope for the future that make her worthy to be the centerpiece of an intimate drama such as this one. Jake Gyllenhaal makes Holden both strangely appealing and a little frightening, so that, as Justine does, we come to admire his `uniqueness' of spirit (he has adopted his name from the main character of his favorite book `Catcher in the Rye') yet fear his increasing possessiveness. John C. Reilly as Justine's husband, Phil, and Deborah Rush as Gwen Jackson, Justine's sometime confidante at the store, also provide memorable, telling performances. In fact, there is nothing less than a superb performance in the entire film.
The question of whether or not Justine is really `a good girl' is, as it should be, left up to the individual viewer to decide. Some may feel she is; others may feel she's not. What really matters, though, is that `The Good Girl' doesn't try to impress us with the slickness that generally defines mainstream commercial filmmaking. Instead it lets its drama unfold in an unforced, believable manner, so that even its moments of greatest absurdity seem somehow strangely real and lifelike. It is a film that, in its own quiet, subtle way, manages to get under your skin - and keeps you thinking for a long time after you leave the theater.