It's pretty rotten timing for Lola Versus to arrive in theaters just months after the ballyhooed premiere of the HBO series Girls. Both the film and the series focus on young women living in modern-day Brooklyn, wearing excellent clothing and making lots of romantic mistakes on their way to growing up; both of them run a real risk of becoming self-absorbed and unbearable, but it's only Lola Versus that falls into that trap. Even with the lovely and captivating Greta Gerwig in the title role, Lola Versus feels like a shallow stop-over in every coming-of-age film cliche, and unlike Girls, it doesn't have the benefit of a TV season to find its footing or convince you to care.
The movie starts strong by beginning where most rom-coms end, with Lola waking up on her birthday to a proposal from Luke (Joel Kinnaman), over the course of the opening credits she leaps happily into wedding planning until, just as director Daryl Wein's name flashes on the screen, he breaks thing off. Lola's breakup spiral feels immediately authentic, as she shamefacedly moves back into her believably crappy old apartment, flirts dangerously with her platonic guy pal (Hamish Linklater), and wanly accepts girl-power advice from a sharp-tongued friend (co-writer Zoe Lister-Jones). But real people also wallow in breakups for what feels like forever, and Lola does exactly that, making mistake after mistake, moaning and pitying herself, and driving the audience as crazy as she would in real life.
Gewig pulls this off for a surprisingly long time, and it's dreadful to imagine what the film would be like without her. But aside from some moments of sharp humor, including one gloriously terrible sex scene with a guy who chooses Ani DiFranco as his doin' it music, Lola Versus feels more like a slog through the breakup doldrums than the frothy, intimate growing-up story it hints at throughout. It's not easy to tell an original story about young people making their way through New York, and though Lola Versus seems aware of the cliched tree it's climbing, it hits nearly every branch on its way down, from the thinly sketched parental roles played by veteran actors we'd like to see more of (Bill Pullman and Debra Winger) to the drunken night of regret to Lola's final realization that it's OK to be on her own, after a movie spent watching her do nothing but cling to others for her self-worth. It's not just an unearned transformation, but a patently false one-- it's possible Wein and Lister-Jones are trying to point out that what you think you know at 30 turns out not to be true at all, but if that extra layer of commentary is there, it's buried too deep to be effective.
In the spirit of saying something nice about a small indie movie that's ultimately not harming anybody, let's stop again to praise Gerwig, who somehow manages to be both stunningly beautiful and an accessible, and occasionally very odd, onscreen presence. She flings herself gamely into Lola's downward spiral, in an unglamorous and un-self-conscious way that at least makes for one positive connection to Lena Dunham's work on Girls. Lola was never going to be a fully realized or truly relatable character-- the writing, so wrapped up in Lola's own self-pity, can't get there-- but Gerwig almost accomplishes it, another example of how she's stealthily becoming one of the most valuable actresses under 30. Lola Versus should have been a proper showcase for Gerwig's skills, but watching her single-handedly make it watchable is almost more impressive.
Reviewed By: Katey Rich