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Marina Antunes [Film Festival 10.12.12] France thriller drama

The opening line of writer/director Wei Ling Chang's feature film debut The Unlikely Girl sets up the tone of the story well: "The sentence below is true. The sentence above is false." It's immediately clear that Chang is playing with perception and the story definitely has more than a few twists and turns, some of which are more effective than others.

Hande Kodja stars as Celine, a beautiful blond that we first meet giving a ticket taker on the train attitude. Shortly thereafter she spots a cute guy, a pretentious writer no less, with whom she has a one sided conversation before engaging in sex and then leaving him behind. She arrives at her destination, re-acquaints herself with the surroundings and rekindles an old romance with Luc who she hasn't seen in seven years. Just as she's settling into the summer, Celine is joined by an unexpected guest. Jamie (Shane Lynch), an exchange student who is spending the summer studying in France, arrives a few weeks early to find her way around before her semester begins. Queue the drama.

Jamie is a ditsy American (obviously not that ditsy since she is an architecture student studying abroad), Celine is a condescending French girl and the two are attracted to Luc though he seems confused by Celine's mixed messages. The trio's friendship quickly turns into an ugly love triangle before a wrench is thrown into the mix: the arrival of Celine's brother Mathieu who may or may not have sexually abused Celine when she was younger.

It's a great concept, one that Chang fully commits to before turning the table on the entire thing. Is any part of Celine's story true or is it all one big ruse? The truths and half-lies eventually untangle in what could have been some great dramatic scenes but sadly, they're lost among mediocre acting and lacklustre direction. Chang clearly has a knack for storytelling, taking a deceptively simple story and parsing it out in such a way that it feels like complex trickery. She never lies to the audience but she shows just enough to lead us where she wants us before pulling the rug but The Unlikely Girl is riddled with problems. There's the mediocre acting from Lynch who seems to be completely lost on set and looks even more ridiculous when on screen with Pierre Boulanger as Luc, by far the best actor of the trio. Kodja as Celine has her moments, the opening scene on the train is particularly good, but they're few and far between. It doesn't help that the actors have very little in the way of decent dialogue to work with.

The Unlikely Girl is a frustrating watch, a great concept that falls short in nearly every way. The constant cut to black transitions, if you can call them that, are annoying and the marker of a director who hasn't figured out how to tie scenes together, the acting is often wooden and the script, though smartly constructed, lacks engaging dialogue and a features a few too many montages.

In the hands of a talented filmmaker The Unlikely Girl would be a fantastic thriller but Chang's movie can best be chalked up to a failed great idea. I would be interested to see a remake, one with a revamped script, actual actors and a director who knows what's they're doing, but I'm also curious to see where Chang goes from here since her movie does show that she has some talent as a screenwriter. Hopefully next time she'll leave the direction to someone else.

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