leave a comment --Maitland McDonagh
Lesbian dalliances in girls' boarding schools have been a staple of soft-core erotica since the '60s, but in the hands of filmmaker Léa Pool, the subject becomes surprisingly fresh and non-exploitative. Shy, serious Mary Bradford (Mischa Barton), nicknamed "Mouse," is starting her first year at a posh boarding school, putting a brave face on her suspicion that her new stepmother, whom her beloved but unreliable dad married a mere three years after her mother's death from cancer, just wants her out of the house. Mouse is assigned to room with two seniors beautiful, charismatic Victoria ("Tory") and sharp-tongued wild girl Pauline ("Paulie") whose fierce passions hint at a disturbing edge of instability. Tory and Paulie help Mouse crawl out of her shell: They're smart, nervy, glamorous free spirits, though Paulie's prone to run-ins with the school authorities, notably headmistress Miss Vaughn (Jackie Burroughs), whose dithery-artsy mannerisms fool some students into ignoring her laser-sharp perceptions of what they've got going on. Miss Vaughn tolerates Paulie's outbursts because she knows Paulie, who's adopted, is struggling with feelings of not belonging, as well as both her sexuality and her alarmingly intense nature. Miss Vaughn and fellow-teacher Miss Bannet (Mimi Kuzyk), whose own long-term friendship causes gossip among the more worldly students, see long before Mouse does that Tory and Paulie are lovers, and that Paulie's the far more deeply committed of the two. The inevitable trouble comes when Tory and Paulie are caught sleeping in bed together. Tory panics: She's fine with being a cool rebel, but total outcast isn't her style. So she breaks it off with Paulie and finds a boyfriend so she can convince everyone (herself included) that she's normal. Paulie, by contrast, makes a beeline for the deep end: She fences until she's exhausted, channels the predatory spirit of a wounded hawk she's been nursing back to health, and immerses herself in the literature of unbridled emotions and bitter gall (the shadow of Lady Macbeth looms large). It doesn't take a clairvoyant to see where this is going, but Pool's sensitive handling of her young actresses more than compensates for the familiar material and the occasional misstep, like the gnomic pronouncements of the school's Native American gardener (Graham Greene). Piper Perabo is a revelation, following her shallow "do-me Barbie" turn in the big-budget COYOTE UGLY (2000), and Barton is maturing into a sensitive, subtle performer with a marvelously expressive face.