Beautiful Girls is a 1995 romantic comedy-drama directed by Ted Demme (The Ref, Blow, Who's the Man?), written by Scott Rosenberg (who also wrote Con Air), and featuring an ensemble cast: Matt Dillon, Lauren Holly, Mira Sorvino, Timothy Hutton, Uma Thurman, Michael Rapaport, Rosie O’Donnell, Martha Plimpton, Noah Emmerich, and Natalie Portman. It is a well-written and well-acted film about old friends coming back together for their ten-year high school reunion, and facing crossroads in their lives, and inabilities to grow up and let go of the past. The film has a warm and familiar feel to it, set in a small Massachusetts town during the winter, in a town where nothing ever changes, and people live ho-hum, average lives. The film feels intimate and small, and is heavy on dialogue without it feeling overly-talky or redundant.
The central plot is that Willie (Hutton) is returning to his hometown of Knights Bridge, Massachusetts, for a high school reunion. He lives in New York City, and can’t decide whether he should give up his career as a pianist and become a salesman, as well as whether or not to marry his girlfriend, Tracy. He re-connects with his old buddies, who are all going through issues of their own:
Tommy (Dillon) a popular high school football star, the “Birdman,” but now works construction, and is upset that he never did anything remarkable with his life after high school. He has a girlfriend, Sharon (Sorvino), but is still having an affair with his girlfriend from high school, Darian (Holly), now married with a kid.
Paul (Rapaport) works construction (a snow plow in the winter), and has had a tumultuous relationship with his on-again, off-again girlfriend Jan. They broke up, and he’s jealous that she’s dating another guy, so he keeps harassing her by piling snow on her driveway and proposing marriage in a confrontational, upset way. (“She’s a vegetarian. What kind of life can she have with a man who smells of brisket?” He blasts 80’s music in his truck out of nostalgic love (Split Enz, Flock of Seagulls), and has unrealistic expectations for a girlfriend, and worships supermodels because beautiful girls are “bottled promises.”
And Mo (Emmerich) is a happy family man who wants the best for his friends, and often gives them good advice about moving as adults and not being fixated on the past.
The women characters, meanwhile, have their own complex thoughts about their relationships and their own crossroads:
Sharon knows that she should break up with Tommy because of his inability to commit, but she is trying to save the relationship.
Gina (O’Donnell) is the brusque voice of reason, which cuts through the melodrama with sharp insight, and delivers a fantastic monologue about men’s unrealistic expectations of women through Playboy, MTV, and swimsuits model photos.
Jan (Plimpton) is frustrated with her ex Paul always bothering her, and only wanting to marry her because he’s fed up and lonely, not out of real love.
Besides Gina, the only other woman that has her life together is Andera (Thurman), a cousin of the local bartender who comes to visit from Chicago. She is the epitome of the Cool Girl, the beautiful woman who can hang with the local guys, drinks whiskey, follows sports, is witty, and is past immature mind games and wish-washy attitudes. She helps Willie out with his romantic issues, stating that her grounded, loving relationship with her boyfriend is the kind of down-home comfort that she wants, thus inspiring Willie to strengthen his relationship with Tracy.
And Natalie Portman, at 13 years old, was a standout in the film as Marty, a likable and charming kid who is smart and perceptive, and good at reading people. Sometimes her dialogue sounded like what an adult thought a precocious, “old soul” type child would speak like, but Portman’s talent and intelligence made her likable and realistic. She and Willie become friends, based upon their identities as existential searchers, and while there is an uncomfortable mutual attraction (especially on Willie’s part), they smartly know not to overstep those boundaries. Marty seems aware that she has an innocent crush on Willie, while Willie ultimately understands that his interest in Marty (and wanting to wait until she is of legal age) is more of a reflection of him not wanting to grow up. There’s a great moment where he uses the analogy of Winnie the Pooh and Christopher Robin with Marty, saying that Christopher Robin had Pooh until Christopher grew up and didn’t need him anymore, as an analogy about adolescent changes and outgrowing things from childhood. He says, “I can’t be your Pooh.” It is disappointing for Marty, but it is a mature and responsible way to end the mutual attraction while still having respect for one another. Portman was still on the rise to fame when she appeared in this film, and despite having a small role, she was a total scene-stealer and a charming presence.
The film feels comfortable, and it feels warm as the audience sees old friends reconnecting with each other at the bar, drinking, laughing, sharing old stories, and bonding with one another over their shared history. The series of bar scenes with friends reflect movies like The Deer Hunter and Diner, scenes with male friends bonding with one another over life, relationships, and personal crossroads.
Paul has screwed up idea about beautiful women, calling them “bottled promises.” He states: “Supermodels are beautiful girls, Will. A beautiful girl can make you dizzy, like you've been drinking Jack and Coke all morning. She can make you feel high full of the single greatest commodity known to man - promise. Promise of a better day. Promise of a greater hope. Promise of a new tomorrow. This particular aura can be found in the gait of a beautiful girl. In her smile, in her soul, the way she makes every rotten little thing about life seem like it's going to be okay. The supermodels, Willy? That's all they are. Bottled promise. Scenes from a brand new day. Hope dancing in stiletto heels.” He has a terrible and misguided idea about beautiful women. He doesn’t consider that these women have problems of their own, or their own worries, thoughts, or cares. That just by being beautiful, they always have to be carefree and happy, and supportive to a man. He is completely wrong in his view of women, and learns a tough lesson in the film about his expectations of women.
Another poignant scene is when Tommy is talking about his life, and his disappointments after high school: “Wondering how I got here, you know? How I’m not anything like what I’d hope I’d be, you know? I’m not even – I’m not even close to the guy that I thought I’d end up being, and it kinda blows, you know?” Dillon did a fantastic job delivering this monologue, of a guy who would have fit right in as a character in Bruce Springsteen’s song “Glory Days,” as a guy who peaked in high school and didn’t do anything remarkable afterwards.
This film is very poignant and relatable, a film about life changes, turning 30 years old, accepting the past and moving on, and not being held back from one’s own insecurities. The film had a solid cast, good writing and directing, and was a captivating film for its time.