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By Ron Wells | July 5, 2001

There are a few kinds of films that I just can’t approach without some feeling of dread. They could just be French, indie love stories, or anything from Joel Schumacher, Henry Jaglom, or Kevin Smith (all pantsless emperors in their own minds). One little crap and hubris-filled genre is the “coming of age” film. It took me years of hard living to dim my own memories of my own passage through the gauntlet of the teen years. Why the hell would I book a sepia-toned sentimental journey back with some hack still brooding over not getting a date to the prom? At that hormonally charged age, every issue you face seems to be of the exact same epic importance. By the time you reach 18 and maybe go away to college, none of it seems to have really meant s**t. I don’t even like being around teenagers now. When you see them in a group of any size, their stupidity only seems to multiply, particularly when they have to deal with anything even remotely serious. What could possibly make this kind of thing go down easier? Well, I suppose some hot teenage girl-on-girl action doesn’t hurt. Director Lea Pool and screenwriter Judith Thompson don’t shy away from that little element in this adaptation of Susan Swan’s novel, “The Wives of Bath.” Set in a Canadian girls’ boarding school, our introduction to this world coincides with that of new arrival Mary (Mischa Barton, who could pass for Sarah Michelle Gellar’s kid sister). Dumped there by her hated new stepmother, the intelligent but meek girl more often answers to the nickname “mouse.” Her real education comes courtesy of her two new roommates, both hellbent on loosening her up. The popular Victoria (Jessica Pare) is well-developed both intellectually and, uh, physically. The cute, eccentric Paulie (Piper Perabo) is by far the biggest risk-taker and pleasure-seeker around; possibly the closest thing in school to a “bad” girl. What Paulie actually takes the most pleasure in turns out to be Victoria. As Mary soon witnesses, her roommates have advanced well beyond close to becoming (clandestinely) intimate. Paulie deeply loves Victoria as totally as a teenage girl can. Victoria reciprocates, for now. Mary, to her credit, addresses the situation only with acceptance and support for what are now her two best friends.
There’s one scene that comes at this point that points the way toward the troubled paths each girl will take. Sitting around their room, Paulie asks each of them what they would put in a letter to their respective mothers. Mary, whose mother is dead, is concerned with her feelings of loneliness and need for closure. Paulie, who was given up for adoption by her much sought birth-mother, wants to tell her she harbors no ill will and only desires some kind of personal connection and reconciliation. Victoria, unfortunately, lives in fear of crossing her cold, ultra-conservative parents. Uh-oh. Maybe you can see where this is going.
Early one morning Victoria’s prissy little sister barges in with her friends only to find big sis and Paulie still asleep, mostly naked and wrapped around each other. Fearing ostracism from both classmates and family, Victoria backpedals as far from Paulie as possible. Quickly pegged as some kind of obsessive, unbalanced lesbian, the dual rejection by both Victoria and her birth mother push poor Paulie to the point that she really starts to live up to that image. Feeling a bit betrayed by her own father, Mary is the one person to stick by her jilted friend. Her primary reward for helping Paulie is to have the bitchy rumor police to come after her as well. It all gets REALLY, REALLY UGLY. This is sink or swim time. Tossed into the deep end, each girl better learn how to paddle fast or somebody is likely to die.
I’ll give the filmmakers this: this movie certainly feels honest, most of the time anyway. “Lesbian coming-of-age” flicks are often excruciating because the storytellers are too wrapped up in expressing a positive tale of sexual awakening instead of showing the crap-fest of confusion and uncertainty that the majority of the human race seems to experience. That’s definitely not a problem here. Piper Perabo, whom you may remember being oh-so convincing as a 21-ish singer/bartender in last year’s often excruciating Coyote Ugly, is actually quite good here as a 16-year-old sliding off the edge of sanity. You’ll also find all of the subtlety and nudity you probably felt cheated out of from that multiplexed debacle. Mischa Barton is quite a find, too. Some of the adult supporting players come off as far too neatly pre-wrapped packages of personality traits. The script also seems strained to maintain a couple of layers of meaning much too close to the surface. When you’re too forceful with your big points like this it seems to strain the purely emotional and interior levels to the characters. I have to wonder who is meant to be the target audience here. The message is pitched to the teenage audience for whom it would do the most good with the meaning easy enough to see so that this age group can find it the first time. However the level of much of what is presented may restrict viewing to an adult audience. I don’t know. Maybe that’s the point — a dark, negative experience that may reflect on your own. One way to lesson personal pain is by sharing it with others. Shared experience creates its own bond, particularly if it means a person no longer must suffer their demons alone.

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