Sex and jealousy, Rhode Island-style

The Big Screen
By AMY LITTLEFIELD  |  September 14, 2011

KIDS IN THE HALL Larson and Mara.

Francesca Gregorini, co-director of the film Tanner Hall, which was shot in Rhode Island and opens here this week, drove a vintage Porsche while she was a student at Brown University . . . or so I had read. I asked her whether this was true.

"Yes, which just makes me sound like a complete asshole," says Gregorini, who insists the Porsche was really broken down — so much so that she sold it at a garage in Providence for about $500. Gregorini also rode a motorcycle, which impressed her future co-director, Tatiana von Furstenberg, daughter of designer Diane von Furstenberg.

Gregorini and von Furstenberg attended Brown together and became close friends shortly thereafter, collaborating on short films. They had a few things in common — including famous parents and a history of attending boarding school. Gregorini is the daughter of former Bond girl Barbara Bach and the stepdaughter of the Beatles drummer Ringo Starr.

The pair returned to Rhode Island to shoot Tanner Hall, a scenic coming-of-age drama set at a girls' boarding school — the exterior of which is actually a mansion in Newport. Dorm room scenes were shot inside a men's club in Pawtucket and classroom scenes were filmed at Nathan Bishop Middle School in Providence before its renovation.

It's been "thrilling" to see the movie hit theaters after languishing for some time following its 2009 debut, says Gregorini. Newfound distributor Anchor Bay may be hoping the film will hitch a ride on actress Rooney Mara's rise to stardom. Mara, who plays the film's main character, Fernanda, landed the lead role in the upcoming movie The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, and also appeared in the 2010 hit The Social Network.

The cast includes other names of note, like Brie Larson, Tom Everett Scott, Chris Kattan, and Amy Sedaris.

The plot may sound familiar — four privileged adolescent girls navigate friendship, jealousy, and their budding sexuality at a picturesque boarding school, discovering, among other things, that they are intriguing to married men. As the men drift away from their dreary wives, the girls learn emotional lessons.

Reviews of the film have been mixed. A Los Angeles Times critic recently compared the experience of watching it to detention. At times, I felt the same way. The trajectory was unsurprising — the vindictive Victoria, played skillfully by Georgia King, sabotages Fernanda in typical mean-girl fashion, while men abandon their one-dimensional wives with apparent ease.

Detention would have been preferable to watching Sedaris, in the role of Kattan's uptight and over-the-top wife, bully and cajole her husband into sexual activity.

But Tanner Hall has its redeeming elements, and one of them is Mara, who is reserved and mature at all the critical emotional moments, even as the film's clumsy drama crashes around her. There is also a tender subplot involving Amy Ferguson's character, who struggles with isolation and shame as she discovers her attraction to women.

Gregorini, who is a lesbian, says, "As a gay woman, as a gay director, it was definitely important to me that one of the characters be gay and address some of the struggles of coming of age and discovering that about yourself," she says.

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  Topics: This Just In , Ringo Starr, Rhode Island, Amy Sedaris,  More more >
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