The cliche is true: Growing up is hard to do. But it’s even harder when your mother is a stoner who never quite learned how to parent, your best friend has basically forgotten that you exist and the most embarrassing moment of your young life unfolds in front of your (mostly mean) sixth grade class. Dorie Barton’s lighthearted coming-of-age tale “Girl Flu” packs all this drama (and more) into a snappy 93 minutes, featuring a star turn from young Jade Pettyjohn as 12-year-old Robin (aka Bird), who is forced to grapple with all the slings and arrows puberty can throw at her, all in the space of a few truly terrible days.
Bird is precocious and smart without being cloying or overwritten, and Pettyjohn’s performance is authentic enough to ground some of the film’s more outsized elements (like a very strange trip to a family friend’s home for a backyard ceremony meant to celebrate Bird’s transition into womanhood or an awkward sequence built around Bird smoking weed because her mother is too inept to hide her stash from her own kid). She’s the best part of the film.
Fortunately, the majority of “Girl Flu” follows Bird as she makes said transition into womanhood, thanks to the unexpected arrival of her very first period, which makes itself very known in front of all of her classmates (including her crush Carlos and bully Rachel, who is cruel in the ways that only teenage girls can be).
It’s the latest trauma in a series of recent indignities that have befallen the charming Bird, and one that only caps off a season of upheaval (including a move to Los Angeles’ hip Echo Park neighborhood from the more suburban-minded Valley and a sustained bullying campaign from her new classmates, including that awful Rachel, boldly played by Isabella Acres). Still worse, Bird’s mother Jenny (Katee Sackhoff) is a well-meaning but woefully inept parent who appears to spend her days cycling through lazing around in bed and heading off to her waitressing job so that she can spend her break time fighting with her boyfriend Arlo (Jeremy Sisto). Jenny, of course, has her own growing up to do, and “Girl Flu” splits its time between Bird and Jenny’s individual maturations to uneven effect.
Although Bird’s issues are myriad and it would be easy for her to fall into a pattern of pitying herself, her unique mix of pluck and practicality make the character shine and keep the tone of “Girl Flu” fizzy and light. Forced to be the adult in the lopsided dynamic between herself and her mother, Bird is mostly interested in decidedly non-teen things like normalcy and peace. Her biggest dream? To go grocery shopping, even by herself, so that her house can be stocked with regular food and, after she gets her period, tampons that don’t terrify her (as inspired by a particularly funny bit during which Jenny tries to use her own stuff to properly outfit the bashful Bird).
Bird doesn’t balk at reprimanding Jenny, and it’s a testament to Pettyjohn’s skillful acting that she can spit out lines like, “You’re not the grown up! I’m the grown up!” without sounding trite.
While “Girl Flu” tries to draw comparisons between Bird and Jenny’s coming-of-ages, only Bird’s story is compelling and entertaining enough to keep the film chugging along. Sackhoff and Sisto bring nuance and intermittent charm to their roles, but their adult-centric storyline (something about Jenny having commitment issues?) never sparks the way Bird’s does. Every moment spent away from Bird is a wasted one, and Pettyjohn’s charming performance is the sort of infectious breakout role that makes a film like “Girl Flu” really get into your system.
“Girl Flu” premiered at the 2016 Los Angeles Film Festival. It is currently seeking distribution.