Early in writer-director Coley Sohn's debut feature, Sassy Pants, Bethany Pruitt (Ashley Rickards) goes into her closet for something to wear and pointedly reaches past a sea of pink items for a plain gray sweatshirt. It's a simple and evocative image that not only demonstrates her mood in that moment, but also says something about her life: This isn't a modern teen girl's closet, but that of a doll, forced into a confectioner's nightmare of girlish pink every day to satisfy some higher power's notions of sweet femininity.
Sohn quickly makes it clear who's keeping that closet looking like a Barbie Playhouse: Bethany's domineering mother June (Breaking Bad's Anna Gunn), a prudish obsessive whose reaction to her husband running off with another man has been to shield her children from the world, home school them and essentially keep them under house arrest.
That pink closet as a symbol of oppression, and the minor act of rebellion in choosing the dull gray sweatshirt, are both underlined when June takes Bethany for a high school graduation dress. She dismisses the fetching little red number Bethany chooses as "something your dad might wear" before pushing a pink dress with a suffocating neckline at her, insisting to the shopkeeper that pink is her daughter's favorite color. The moment hammers home a point that was made more elegantly in the earlier scene. And that's an effective summary of both the strengths and weaknesses of Sassy Pants, which often undermines its stronger sequences with on-the-nose overemphasis.
The home school graduation is a pathetic affair, attended only by Bethany's younger brother, Shayne (Martin Spanjers), and their sardonic grandma (Jenny O'Hara). Grandma is the only resident of the house willing to call June on her obsessive need for control. It's a voice the movie needs, though the bluntly profane elderly character who dispenses occasional wisdom is a little too stock and self-consciously quirky.
The movie finds its best moments when Bethany runs away to her dad (Diedrich Bader), a used-car salesman shacking up with a perpetually shirtless and very young boyfriend named Chip. Chip's played by Haley Joel Osment, best known as the haunted boy in The Sixth Sense, who's obviously having more fun onscreen in short shorts, cowboy boots and thick black eyeliner than he has in years. Osment's character is the younger, gayer equivalent to Grandma: largely a ditz, but capable of dispensing surprisingly sage advice when necessary.
In a different, trashier version of the film, Chip and Bethany might have ditched her sad-sack dad — who is, in many ways, just as damaged and needy as her mother — and gone on the crazy road trip that Chip at one point suggests to her. But ultimately his presence is just a shade too outre for where Sohn's film is going, as it can't quite resist the pull toward TV-movie sentimentality.
The central conflict becomes Bethany's drive to go to fashion school, which runs counter to Mom's plans to have her "go off" to college by staying at home and completing her degree online. When that fight leads to a big moral decision for June, the ease with which she learns her Very Important Lesson doesn't quite seem plausible, and the scene skews a little too far to the sappy side.
Sweet and well-intentioned, Sassy Pants is difficult to dislike, despite its missteps. If its look at lower-middle-class suburban life stuck to material with a little more bite — such as one excellent sequence when the smart but easily influenced Bethany models a coworker's behavior on a double date, quickly learning to play down her talents so as not to intimidate the idiot boy she's trying to attract — then the sweetness of the conclusion might have seemed more earned. Sometimes you need a spoonful of medicine to help the sugar go down.