Viewers allergic to adorable-animal movies should know that felines barely leave a paw print in Take Care of My Cat, Korean director Jae-eun Jeong’s sensitive debut about the shifting friendships among five girls. As rich in incidental detail as it is narratively diffuse, Cat faithfully registers their failures in ambition and communication as workplace ennui obliterates high school graduation giddiness, the only constant the variegated burbling of their cell phones. (In a witty, telling touch, text messages leak into the real world, gliding across windows and facades.) The film is a strange creature: a teen flick with scarcely a hint of sex, a story that refuses to crystallize until near the end, an ostensible ensemble piece that separates its players more than it unites them.
The time apart lends their meetings resonance, and the plot’s gentle interlockings find a metaphor in the painstakingly braided graphic designs of Ji-young (Ji-young Ok), the group’s most troubled member, an orphan who lives with her poor grandparents under an obscenely sagging ceiling. Her closest friend, the stunning Hae-joo (Yo-won Lee), takes an entry-level job in a Seoul brokerage, where her self-absorption becomes intolerable. Almost by accident, though not without friction, Ji-young finds a more sympathetic friend in Tae-hee (Doo-na Bae), a smart but circumscribed girl who toils without pay at the family business and spends her spare time transcribing the verse of a handicapped poet.
The film’s modest premise belies its wide-angle shot of contemporary Korean society, taking in everything from an American-style eatery’s disorienting menu items to the trio of young Burmese factory workers who try to pick up the girls. Take Care of My Cat is a world in small, subtly acknowledging larger economic and cultural forces one moment, and in the next patiently observing the way a bowl of medicinal tea, seen turning in a microwave carousel, begins to describe its own slow epicycles.
The rail-thin Cat people would have no trouble slipping into the fancy dresses that 18-year-old Ana Garcia (America Ferrera) helps iron at her sister’s sweatshop in Real Women Have Curves. Bored in East L.A., Ana has a crazy ethnic mother and a hardworking ethnic father, a clueless Anglo boyfriend, an ambivalent application in to Columbia, and some meat on her bones—her mom calls her gordita, or butterball. The film stakes out a self-affirming Atkins-free zone that seems unobjectionable in theory, but its speechifying tendencies and familiar familial tensions overwhelm the more delicate scenes. Though Ferrera possesses a beguiling attentiveness to that age where independence and insecurity overlap, the film is about as complex as the flan Ana’s mother forbids her. Curves throws no curves, and by the end it’s as earnest as a pitch for Columbia’s minority recruitment program.
Education can also restrict: The tight-laced parents of rebellious Winnie Foster (Gilmore Girls cutie Alexis Bledel) want to ship her to Miss Hall’s Academy for Girls, but this seems only partly why Bledel, consigned to corsets and croquet, looks so weepy for much of Tuck Everlasting. The reason might lie in a script that favors the starchy demands of period melodrama over her TV show’s fizzy screwball banter—or maybe it’s just William Hurt’s embarrassing brogue. The immortal Tucks (Hurt, wife Sissy Spacek, and their two sons) live hidden in the forest owned by Winnie’s father; when she chances on them, they kidnap her to protect their secret, and she contracts the worst case of Stockholm syndrome since whatever it was that happened in Stockholm. Bledel and Jonathan Jackson’s gorge-side canoodling drifts dangerously close to Blue Lagoon territory, and a caffeinated flashback detailing the origins of Tuck longevity proves less that death is the mother of beauty than that director Jay Russell has the chops to make a decent nü-metal video.