Beautiful Girls: Ted Demme’s Tale of Immature Guys, Starring Timothy Hutton and Natalie Portman in Breakout Performance

Ted Demme’s Beautiful Girls is about a bunch of immature guys preparing for their tenth-year high school reunion.

They all know that it’s time for them to grow up and face adulthood, but they are clueless as to how to go about it. The film follows them as they work their way through various crises.

The catalyst for the identity crises is offered by Willie (Timothy Hutton), a struggling pianist who retreats to Knight’s Ridge, a New England town buried in snow. The returning prodigal son, who has been living in New York playing piano in bar lounges, has an uncommitted romance with Tracy (Annabeth Gish), whom he describes as “a solid 71/2″ (on a scale of 1 to 10) in body, looks and personality.”

Willie is torn between romance with his lawyer girlfriend and attraction to Marty (Natalie Portman, in a breakout performance), a precocious 13-year-old girl who lives next door. Age difference aside, Willie and Marty are well-matched–“Romeo and Juliet, the dyslexic version,” she says. The irony, of course, is that they can’t be together. Willie needs to decide whether he can settle for someone who’s not perfect, whether to give up piano, and whether to wait another five years for Marty to come of age.

Willie’s friend snowplow driver Tommy (Matt Dillon), a former jock disappointed in the way his life has turned out, breaks the heart of his patient girl Sharon (Mira Sorvino) by fooling around with the married Darian (Lauren Holly), his high-school flame. He, too, needs to end the affair and commit himself to one woman.

Yet another suspended adolescent is the loutish Paul (Michael Rapaport), who talks endlessly about the supermodels and pin-ups on his wall. He, too, needs to recognize fully his limitations and accept his relationship with Jan (Martha Plimpton), a waitress in the local diner.

The critic John Powers has observed that American pop culture has specialized in two kinds of small towns: Mid-American Babylons like Twin Peaks, where Mom’s apple pie is wriggling with worms, and sitcom pipe dreams, aglow with decency. Despite brawls and infidelities, Knight’s Ridge is of the latter kind.

That said, Ted Demme shows affection for small-town ritualistic spots: The ice-fishing huts, the intimate cafes where waitresses know the customers by name, the bars where people sing Neil Diamond tunes. But Demme also knows that such towns can paralyze men like Willie in a state of perpetual adolescence.