by Ryan Simpkins
I dunno if you’ve seen Uptown Girls, but it’s got everything: early 2000s nostalgia, sassy 9 year old Elle Fanning, peak Brittany Murphy, cute boys, teacup pigs, everything. I grew up watching this film. I idolized Elle Fanning, a young girl who knew what she wanted, who was dedicated to getting it, who wasn’t afraid of telling people off. Plus, she has really cute sunglasses. I kind of assumed this film was a staple in coming of age chick flicks, right up there alongside 13 Going On 30 and Clueless. But I recently discovered so many people that I know and love haven't even heard of this shit. Bitch, we’re changing that right now! It’s free on YouTube! I recently rewatched the film, and not only did I fully enjoy it, I recognized a theme I had never processed before that becomes key to my development as a person: Both leads struggle heavily with their own forms of mental illness, and it is explicit.
Set in early 2000s New York, Murphy plays Molly, an orphaned heiress of her father’s rock star fame and fortune (think Frances Bean but less punk and more Barbie). Dressed in glittering sequins, she's lived her entire life upon a cushion of privilege outside any realm of harsh reality. That cushion is suddenly yanked from beneath her when she discovers her fortune’s been stolen, her penthouse is foreclosed on, and the majority of her social circle begins to push her out of their lives. She is a 20 something child with no work experience. This leads her to nanny for the most impossible child: lil’ baby Fanning. Fanning plays Ray, a child with a track record of disposed nannies, an absent mother, and a father in a coma. She loves organization, hates germs, and must be in control. She has been in therapy since she was 3 and practically raised herself without any consistent guardians. So this fucked up woman child is now tasked with caring for this fucked up old soul baby. Hilarity ensues as these polar opposites discover *~they aren’t so different after all~*. But the film goes deeper than surface level character development of the “odd couple” trope. Both girls have suffered from neglect, and therefore have unexplored afflictions rooted deep in their being. These illnesses are written off by friends and family as “quirky” rather than major ailments that keep them from functioning. Through their relationship, these two young women are able to unpack lifetimes of mental illness via much needed affection, attention, and love.
Molly suffers from a serious dissociative disorder. Part of this is likely to stem form her strange fairy princess reality: her parents raised her like royalty only to die and leave her alone with their riches. There's never any mention of who continued to raise her after her being orphaned at 8, though she mentions having lived in her penthouse since she was 2. She has existed in this comfortable privilege since she was young, and it seems as though no one has thought to care for the girl who seemingly had the world. So, she’s used to this surreal isolation and lack of genuine connection. When she discovers her father’s manager has fled the country, taking her entire fortune with him, Molly dissociates. Murphey’s face becomes slack, eyes glaze over. The audio fades out those around her talking reality and logistics. When she comes too and the audio snaps back, she carries a calm smile and ensures everyone that this man will return, even though she knows from previous experience that when people leave, they stay gone. She deals with tragedy via this dissociation, denying a reality she cannot come to understand. She later tells Ray of her reaction to her parents death, a scene I took as outlandish as a kid that I now find very familiar. She staggers to explain how everyone's “voices became a blur” how she “couldn’t even recognize their faces… they became blobs, and then they grew fangs.” Young Molly could not connect with the reality presented and so went into a panic, losing a grip on reality and, as we’re able to see from her outlandish behavior as an ‘adult’, never fully got it back. This is only one aspect of her emotional ailments as her mood swings lead her irrational behavior to drastic situations.
Molly sways back and forth between hippie child happiness and enraged desperation. Early on, Molly meets singer-songwriter-sad-boi Neal at a party and believes it’s love at first sight. She takes him home and loves him to pieces as they spend 48 hours in the same room. When he tells her he needs to leave to “rejoin the human race,” she breaks. Moments before their breakup, Molly tells her friend on the phone she needs out, that she’s “not a love machine.” But now he ends it, and despite her statement seconds before, this sends her into a spiraling obsessive depressive episode. She sobs in a couch surrounded by take-out boxes and rotting food. She shows up to his apartment uninvited in the middle of the night. She buys him gifts worth thousands of dollars despite the fact that she is broke. He falls in and out of this relationship, taking her attention until he begins to realize her “obsessive compulsive irrational behavior”. Fast-forward, Neal’s song inspired by his romance with Molly becomes a hit, he's super successful while she’s in the midst of a mental-breakdown. Molly has an episode, running past scenes of connection she has never had (romance, fathers, etc) while Neal’s hit single blares in her mind. She runs to the center of a bridge and climbs the railing, the music cutting abruptly before she jumps to the depths below her. Yeah, Molly just tried to fucking kill herself in this chick flick about babysitting and boy bands. And yet the film flips this into a funny moment as Molly’s head never falls below the surface. The lake is more like a pond. The severity of her suicide attempt build up is done respectfully; genuine for Molly whose characterization has built up to the moment, and the sound mix having us empathize with her anxiety. But what follows is relief met with laughter. Thank god she jumped into a pond of sewage water, thank god she’s not dead. While we’re able to laugh we also stop and recognize the severity of Molly’s state: she is totally alone while she loses her grip on reality. Cue Ray.
While far younger, Ray seems to have recognized the world’s realities years before Molly. As she states so clearly, tiny soulless glasses atop her tiny nose: “It’s a harsh world”. And so she copes: trust no one, fend for yourself. If someone bails on you, get angry and move on. Stick to routine and let no one or thing get in your way. Not the most healthy way of coping with an absent mother and “vegetable” dad, but no one has cared enough to correct her. She’s used to controlling her life and tidying things in it so that she doesn't have to focus on the underlying mess of her lack of childhood or abundant loneliness. She compulsively cleans (she carries around her own personal soap bar) and rejects companionship (be it leaving ballet class early or firing any nanny who tries). But once she meets Molly, she eventually accepts change.
The two learn to cope. When Molly jumps off a bridge, Ray takes her seriously, nurse her back to health, encourages Molly to heal her issues responsibly. Molly gives Ray the attention she deserves, validating her feelings of loneliness Ray previously rejected. The film balances tone phenomenally, presenting a serious moment where the audience stops for a moment to process what these young women are saying, forgetting that we are watching a chick flick (negative connotation carrying the rotten tomatoes score). And then the moment ends with a laugh- a swinging door to the face, a realization that the protagonist is standing in sewage. This is the reality of mental illness, at least one I can relate to: one moment there's not enough air in your lungs to process the mess in your mind, the next you realize you’re hyperventilating in a Ben & Jerry's bathroom. And that's kind of just funny.
I’ve talked too much about this silly film apart of a genre I’ll defend to the ends of the earth, so I’ll leave you with this Brittany Murphy line (rest in fucking elegance, girl): “You know I saw this show once...about all these sick people. And the ones where their friends and families talked to them, they held on ten times longer than the ones left all alone.” And fuck. I really felt that.