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'Odd Girl Out' acts tough, but plays like after-school movie

In 1993, many Martin Scorsese fans were mystified that the director of openly brutal movies such as ''GoodFellas" had taken on Edith Wharton's ''The Age of Innocence." But as his adaptation proved, tribal warfare could be as primal and ferocious among 19th century aristocrats as it was in the 20th century mafia. Despite their fine china and delicate language, Wharton's people can run members out of their pack with all the blind fury of a raging bull.

OK, it's a long leap from Scorsese and Wharton to a bland Lifetime movie of the week. But ''Odd Girl Out," which premieres tonight at 9, takes on the same white-gloved cruelty and civilized savageness. The codes among high school girls are often severe, as rigid as those in any Wharton or Scorsese subculture, and they can lead newly lipsticked kids into unexpected emotional violence against one another. Among ''mean girls" as much as on the mean streets, groupthink trumps individual consciences. When sweet Vanessa (Alexa Vega) is summarily bumped out of her cafeteria clique and becomes ''Odd Girl Out," she reels as if from a sucker punch.

The movie, based on Rachel Simmons's 2002 ''Odd Girl Out: The Hidden Culture of Aggression in Girls," does manage to convey a general sense of the muffled sadism of teen bullying. But it brings almost no imagination or personality to the subject. It's as familiar as other films and TV shows on girl cliques -- ''Carrie," ''Heathers," ''Mean Girls," ''Popular" -- have been original and hip. It plays out with the grim moral instruction of an ''After School Special." Earnest to a fault, it's like a textbook snapshot of teen-girl ostracism, filmed more to engender conversation on the subject than to tell a particular story.

Naturally, Vanessa couldn't be any nicer, which may be what causes her fall from the hierarchy. She's so trusting, she seems to have missed the fact that she's swimming with sharks, including her best friend Stacy (Leah Pipes) and Stacy's henchman, Nikki (Elizabeth Rice). Tired of being No. 3, Nikki impulsively promotes an ugly rumor against Vanessa that leads all their friends to suddenly reject her. Vanessa retreats into depression. Not even her loving and observant mother, Barbara (Lisa Vidal), can reach into her daughter's private hell to lend a hand. And Barbara's attempt to get help from the school administration is also fruitless; there has been no physical violence.

What ''Odd Girl Out" captures best is the cowardice of the girls. Unable to do their dirtiest work face to face, they use technology to humiliate Vanessa. They create ''Hating Vanessa" websites with distorted pictures of her, they remove her from their instant-message buddy lists, and they ''accidentally" send her text messages attacking her. It's an epic digital diss.

When Vanessa confronts Stacy about the abuse, Stacy wriggles out of blame. ''You get all dramatic and overreact," she says. But then Stacy continues the charge against Vanessa, not even really sure why.

''Odd Girl Out" features an appealing performance by Vega -- sometimes too appealing. If her Vanessa were less innocent and dear, it might have bucked against the movie's simplistic, good-vs.-evil approach. It might have brought out some of the psychological layering that ''Odd Girl Out" generally avoids.

Matthew Gilbert can be reached at

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