What a sweet little movie this is. It succeeds on multiple levels.

I noticed in reading a little about Gretchen (very little—this is evidently a very obscure indie, with next to nothing available in terms of reviews or information about it online) before watching it that it’s a sort of female version of Napoleon Dynamite. Unfortunately I’m not in a position to agree or disagree with that comparison, not having seen the latter film.

It plays primarily as a comedy most of the way, and a decidedly clever one. I’m not going to say there’s nothing in the movie that falls flat, but there was a lot here that tickled me.

The title character is a shy, awkward, geeky 17 year old girl, dealing with conventional teenage angst. And mostly dealing with it quite poorly—comically poorly. Her communication skills are minimal, when she falls for a boy both her resulting behavior and the object of her affection leave much to be desired, she’s prone to occasional violent flare-ups, and her first instinct in any jam is to lie.

Actress Courtney Davis looks at least five years too old for the part by the way, one of the few flaws in the movie. Though it does further the goal of creating the impression that she doesn’t fit in her current environment.

She drifts through life looking wary or shell shocked (think of the deadpan expression of the lead character of Eraserhead), rarely if ever smiling, but still never fully giving up on finding love and happiness. (In one of many wonderful scenes that somehow manage to be truthful, hilarious, and cringe-inducing at the same time, she is incarcerated at a treatment center for her behavior issues, and says to a roommate, “Why does everybody want to keep me from being in love? Love is a beautiful thing. It frees you….Love is not against the rules.” “Actually it is,” is the roommate’s—and the world’s?—response.)

The unappealing traits of the people in her life are exaggerated for humor purposes, yet they reflect very real experiences of teenage life. These aren’t exaggerations of a surreal type (like people turning into animated monsters or some kind of special effects-based artsiness), and they aren’t exaggerations that go for cheap laughs or are irrelevant to the essence of the character type.

They are, perhaps, how a wiser, grown up Gretchen might remember (with a shudder) the people who populated her world at that stage of her past, highlighting the aspects of them that make her most grateful that they are indeed past.

So the “boyfriends” are a little extra loutish. The school counselors and other authority figures pose their judgments and criticisms as questions (which Gretchen naively attempts to answer literally, until she figures out that the way the game is played is that they’re fishing for the “correct” answer that’s already been determined in advance). Her ineffectual mother follows a “no negativity allowed” strategy with her daughter of bland, generic praise, unconditional acceptance, and persistent offers to talk or help, which Gretchen finds can be deflected nearly effortlessly with a quick lie, when they can’t be ignored entirely. The father who abandoned her turns out to be the epitome of a fat, middle-aged loser dimwit slob working at a fast food restaurant. Her female rival is extra cruel and frank. (She brags about being popular, and attributes it to her being a slut. Gretchen protests that she can be a slut too, which the girl dismisses as impossible. Gretchen asks “Why not?” defensively. The response: “Because you’re flat-chested, you dress bad, you got no make-up, and you’re ugly. In the face.” Well OK, I guess since we’re talking about teenage girls, maybe this last example isn’t particularly exaggerated.)

Watching this poor soul futilely trying to navigate her way through these grotesqueries brought to mind the scene in Bowling for Columbine where Michael Moore asks South Park’s Matt Stone what he would have said to the frustrated and angry murderers, and he says he’d have told them not to take their high school experiences so seriously, to think the high school winners will be winners in life and the high school losers will be losers in life, because it’s really just a lot of nonsense you can put behind you when it comes time to live your life.

It’s not uncommon for a comedy to get a little more serious at the end, to tack on an uplifting message, to let the characters, and the viewers, finish on a high note. This movie is no exception, being of the “coming of age” subset that has a happy ending depicting the lead character growing up and learning an important life lesson.

Yet even here this film is a refreshing surprise. Not the ending per se, but the fact that I bought it. What in a lesser or more mainstream movie likely would have felt perfunctory and formulaic is as pitch perfect as the comedy portions had been. When Gretchen realizes that love and human connection are not so unattainable after all, and that one of the two people who believes in her and that she can truly rely on has been under her nose all along (with the other such person being herself), I confess I got choked up. And I knew then that this movie and this character had won me over, that while I had mostly been appreciating the film for its laughs, it had managed to touch me on a deeper level.

Gretchen is a beautiful little film, a hidden gem.

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