Over the last 15 years or so, the term “indie movie” has changed drastically from what it meant when the genre first burst on the scene. These days, the term is taken very literally which means any movie not produced by one of the major film studios. Thus films like Juno or Little Miss Sunshine which feature established Hollywood stars and draws in movies produced on tight budgets relative to James Cameron films (though normally still in the $10-20 million range). The indie film circuit has become the place where established auteurs and respectable actors/actresses go to get back their artistic cred before they return to making mainstream Hollywood movies. I’m not complaining about this trend. There’s been an explosion of “indie” films because the major studios have realized the profitability of the genre, and this means the quality of your average indie film has gotten exponentially higher than the genre’s formative years. It is rare that a true indie film (such as Paranormal Activity which was made for less than $20,000) gains any mainstream recognition. For the first time since the disappointing and aimless Border Radio, I’ve actually gotten around to watching another of those real indie films which was obviously shot for pittance and features the indie hall marks of characters doing virtually nothing more than sitting around and talking about the very everyday nature of their lives. I just watched 1996’s Girls Town, and while it was refreshing to see an entertaining and well-made film made from such meager resources and at times, it was a truly great film, it spent far too much of its short running time being depressingly boring and it’s powerful pro-feminism message was lost in actions that made its heroines far less sympathetic.

Girls Town is about a group of four female friends from the inner city (I was never entirely sure which city) living out the last few weeks of their senior year of high school as they plan to head out into the real world. Nikki (Aunjanue Ellis) has been accepted to Princeton where she is going to study African American Studies and Literature. Emma (Anna Grace) volunteers at a local woman’s shelter and will be attending Columbia in the fall. Patti (Six Feet Under‘s Lili Taylor) is a single mother whose been a senior for half a decade now, and Angela (Bruklin Harris) is an aspiring poet. When Nikki unexpectedly commits suicide, the girls read Nikki’s diary and discover that months before, she had been raped by one of the men at the magazine where she had an internship. The pain of that memory and her inability to share it with anyone (including her best friends) led to a depression which culminated in her taking her own life. The girls that remain are then forced to deal with their own histories of sexual abuse and how the patriarchal system they live under perpetuates the sort of situation that allowed Emma to be raped by a boy she was on a date with after she had said no and how the system made Patti believe the circumstances surrounding the rape (Emma got in the car with the boy to make out) made the incident not rape. What follows is a story where these three girls try to take back some of the power garnered from them, at first through petty vandalism, then theft, and it eventually makes its way to assault. That is essentially the whole film, but plot isn’t the real key here as I’ll discuss shortly.

Anna Grace (who only has two movies mentioned in her filmography for Netflix) was spectacular as Emma in this very fine cast. With some slight riot girl affectations but something more akin of the post-grunge movement, she perfectly nailed the essence of a girl just discovering that she doesn’t have to sit back and let this male run world take advantage of and exploit her at every turn. Emma came off as almost profoundly intelligent (at least compared to her friends) and I have to get behind any film that has women talking about more than boys (at least not talking about them as things to be desired) or fashion. There was just a heartbreaking sincerity to her and when she discussed her rape incident with her friends (and later) with her current boyfriend, it was all very hard to watch. Bruklin Harris was also great as the feisty and defensive Angela. My only complaint from the cast was actually Lili Taylor, who I mostly know as the understated (and incredibly odd) mother of Nate’s child on Six Feet Under. Her performance here was almost cartoonishly over the top and she became more a caricature of the teenage mother archetype than a real breathing and defined character like Emma and Angela. I loved her on Six Feet Under and her small part in Say Anything. I was just disappointed by her turn in this film which was more annoying than engaging.

While scenes like Emma, Angela, and Patti discussing the nature of rape in Patti’s basement were truly top-rate material, the rest of the film fails to live up to those high standards, and at times, it can be downright boring. For a movie that was only 90 minutes long, it certainly felt like it was dragging. Also, by the end of the film, it seems as if our trio are on the verge of becoming small time criminals not strong feminist voices. While I understand their anger at the system that has abused them, I wasn’t especially happy with the direction the film took their characters. All in all though, they really don’t make indie films like this any more (at least not ones that get any sort of attention). For fans of either old school indie cinema or feminist movie making, you should give these a whirl. While I couldn’t stand Lili Taylor’s performance (she was somehow nominated for an Independent Spirit Award), Anna Grace more than made up for it with a powerful breakthrough performance. I still can’t believe she hasn’t had a career since then. I thought she was great. This movie might not be everyone’s cup of tea, but if you can stomach films that are more interested in a portrait than plot, this is a hidden gem you might never have heard of otherwise.

Final Score: B

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