Despite being a 90s kid and absolutely adoring films from the early 2000s, ‘Uptown Girls’ was one of the rare films I never got around to viewing. I’ve been holding onto the intention of actually sitting down and watching the film for nearly a decade now, and it seemed that 2021 was the year to finally do it.
I always had an inkling that I would like ‘Uptown Girls’, because who can really name a bad film starring a young Dakota Fanning? And as expected, I did enjoy it. However, I was disappointed that many reviewers from the 2000s didn’t feel the same way. It seems that while this film did great at the box office, more than half of its viewers simply couldn’t get through the ‘rich white girl’ concept to reach the deeper and darker dialogue behind ‘Uptown Girls’.
Brittany Murphy acts as a well-off party chick, Molly Gunn, who lives her life in complete disarray after losing both her parents in a sudden aeroplane accident at the age of thirteen. In order to escape reality, Molly only leaves her chaotic Manhattan apartment to party and make lavish purchases with the ample inheritance acquired from her father — a rock star who remains as a legendary figure in the music industry. However, all of that changes when her accountant/agent ‘Bob’ disappears with Molly’s trust fund, leaving her with nothing but her father’s guitar collection and a pet pig — what was meant to be for a Thai dinner that Molly couldn’t bear to consume. After blowing her first job as a sales assistant, Molly lands the position of being a nanny to a neglected but wealthy eight-year-old — Ray (Dakota Fanning).
Ray is first introduced to us as a stoic and structured germaphobe, serving as a stark contrast to Molly’s immature and carefree personality. While I understand that the whole ‘opposites attract’ trope is overdone, it would be utterly unfair to simply summarise this film as ‘two girls who teach each other to act their age’. That’s not the premise of the film, at least not entirely. That oversimplified sentence doesn’t even begin to describe the grief and loss that’s addressed in this film.
Is Ray ‘too mature’? Yes. Is Molly ‘too immature’? Yes. But simply viewing these characters based off of first impressions is shallow, and these characters are way deeper than that. It’s important for a film to prioritise their characters, and that’s just what ‘Uptown Girls’ did. Not only did this story show us major character growth, but they also allowed us to learn how these characters came to be. Ray isn’t just some neglected rich white girl. Sure, she was born with a silver spoon in her mouth. But her father’s stuck in a very deep coma, and she hasn’t spoken to him in years. As far as she’s concerned, he’s as good as dead.
Instead of praying for her father to open his eyes, while her mother — Roma (Heather Locklear) — attends parties and sleeps around with up-and-coming artists, Ray finds it easier to cope by focusing on her studies, prioritising her health, and working towards her own future. And in order to sustain and maintain her realistic outlook on life, it only makes sense for Ray to shut off her feelings. If you can’t feel, you can’t get hurt.
She doesn’t have fun, she doesn’t get attached, she doesn’t trust others, and she certainly doesn’t place any expectations on others. As far as she’s concerned, she can only rely on herself. In fact, Molly summed up Ray’s outlook on life perfectly, when she labeled it as being ”kind of harsh.” To which, Ray replies: “it’s a harsh world,” before popping on her slim oval sunglasses — that just scream 90s and early 2000s fashion.
Of course, as Molly and Ray spend almost all hours of the day together, Ray’s responsible nature inevitably begins to neutralise Molly’s juvenile mindset. In my opinion, Ray kickstarts Molly’s clock again, helping to pull her out from her cocoon. Ray opens Molly’s eyes to the reality that she doesn’t have to limit herself to ‘the daughter of some rock star’.
While Molly’s ‘rich party girl’ status doesn’t paint her in the best light, it’s important to address the fact that she is a genuinely nice girl. Sure, she needs to sort out her priorities and definitely stop falling for musicians, but Molly does possess the characteristics of being caring and selfless. “Other people always let you down, why don’t you just forget about them and do something for yourself?” Ray asks Molly, planting the seed for Molly’s personal growth. It may sound ridiculous, but I thought that Molly’s character had depth. Despite her supposedly ‘childish’ nature, she knew how to act like an adult when she needed to. This was evident at the beginning, when Ray threw up the middle finger and Molly’s first response was disciplinary action.
While a film of this genre is sure to include romance, I’m glad that ‘Uptown Girls’ inclusion of it didn’t draw any attention away from the relationship between Molly and Ray. Our pair of girls often fought with each other, and while this worked to highlight their differences, it also shows us how they were able to bond so well with one another. And if there was one thing that they shared, it was their experience of grief and loss. This can be seen when Molly joins Ray on the teacup ride at Coney Island. Despite Molly riding it out alone as a child, she made sure that Ray didn’t have to suffer the same fate.
This film displayed how different people cope with grief differently, but it doesn’t draw away from the fact that they are dealing with it. For Molly, it stunted her emotional growth, as she refused to face reality. On the other hand, the absence of Ray’s father caused her to seem ‘grown up’, as she lost the ability to trust others and placed more emphasis on the things that she could rely on — “fundamentals are the building blocks of fun”.
I didn’t have any major problems with this film, but that final scene completely let me down. While I couldn’t be more happy that Molly’s found her calling, I despise the fact that Neal (Jesse Spencer) — a starving musician, who slept with, jilted, and robbed Molly — was seemingly forgiven at the very end. After stepping on stage, serenading her, and displaying her father’s memorabilia (for her to, hopefully, take home), everyone’s all filled with smiles and that’s it!
While nothing’s specifically spelt out to us, we can all assume that such an ending alludes to the outcome of Molly and Neal living happily ever after. And that sickens me. This is the sleaze who should have cut things off with Molly without keeping her expensive Egyptian cotton sheets, without using it as inspiration for his single, without criticising Molly’s original jacket design, and certainly without turning around to use it as his music video image. Neal is a disgusting gigolo who sleeps his way through management because he has no original bright ideas. And no woman should ever willingly choose to be with a guy who comes crawling back to her after all of that. Especially, if the guy begins to place the blame on her for not wanting his sorry butt back.
Granted that Molly displayed some serious red flags throughout their relationship, it does not give Neal the right to steal all of her bright ideas, and get away with it. It’s completely fine to dump Molly, she’s bat shit crazy. But he can’t criticise her suggestions, use it to get ahead in his career, and then come crawling back to her when it suits his sorry ass. She has a life, she’s piecing herself back together, and he has to stay out of it.
‘Uptown Girls’ wasn’t just about the friendships, romance, and dealing with grief. It also spoke to viewers who had to deal with busy working parents. Despite not being some rich white girl, I was able to relate to the story depicted on screen. I grew up in Singapore. Both of my parents left for work early and returned home late. We didn’t share meals together, except on the weekends, and I barely saw them. I spent more time with my live-in maid (yes, it’s extremely common in Singapore) than I did with my parents. And if you need a sign to show that the film remains a worthy watch in 2021, here it is: ‘Uptown Girls’ was able to make a middle-class Asian individual feel empathy towards both Molly and Ray.