By definition, any film with a preteen heroine will end up focusing on that uncertain, seesawing phase between childhood and adulthood. The film itself, though, ought to know which side to land on.
That's the problem with "Girl in Progress," a comedy-drama that veers between silly and serious but can't reconcile the opposing tones. On the serious side: Its protagonist is a schoolgirl whose life suits her unlikely name, Ansiedad -- "Anxiety," in Spanish. Her father is an absent unknown, and her mother, Grace (Eva Mendes), is a waitress and housekeeper who's sleeping with a married man (Matthew Modine).
Ansiedad (a very good Cierra Ramirez) is so precocious that when her English teacher describes the coming-of-age genre, she decides to follow the rules in an attempt to reach adulthood. That almost seems like the movie's silly side, except that Ansiedad's plan includes cruelly spurning her overweight friend, Tavita (Raini Rodriguez), in favor of the cool crowd. Crushed, Tavita swallows a bottle of pills.
At times, the movie adopts the snarky tone of the "Diary of a Wimpy Kid" movies or ABC's "The Wonder Years," poking fun at the overblown melodramatics of youth. Then again, nearly everyone in the film is a source of disillusionment or even moral failure. It's hard to resist the always vivacious Mendez as Grace, but the character borders on unredeemable; when Ansiedad's teacher (Patricia Arquette) accuses her of "parental neglect," the charge sticks.
Written by Hiram Martinez and directed by Patricia Riggen, "Girl in Progress" occasionally strikes a powerful note, as when Ansiedad's plan to lose her virginity goes badly for both parties. But those moments are undercut by sugary sentiments and a tidy ending. Like Ansiedad, this movie has some growing up to do.
PLOT A young girl decides she's found the perfect plan for growing up.
RATING PG-13 (mature thematic elements, sexual content, crude references, drinking involving teens)
BOTTOM LINE A confused coming-of-age movie that feels too serious for tweens and too silly for anyone else.