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The actress graduated from Wellesley College in 1996, then returned to the campus to play a co-ed in Julia Roberts’ 2003 drama “Mona Lisa Smile.” Five years later, Allen went back to school one more time: In “Cherry,” shot in Kalamazoo two years ago and now opening around the country, she plays Linda, a mom in her early 30s, making an uneasy adjustment to academia.
Linda befriends Aaron (Kyle Gallner), an awkward freshman with very little life experience. Linda, on the other hand, has almost too much: She’s battled substance abuse and struggled to raise her now-15-year-old daughter, Beth (Britt Robertson), by herself.
“There was a lot about Linda I could relate to,” Allen said, in a phone interview last month. “There’s something in her that wants to cling to her youth, to her playfulness. This young guy comes along, and she wants to be playful and bawdy and perhaps shock him a bit. But, at the same time, she wants to get over her demons and be a mother.”
It’s not surprising that Aaron is attracted to Linda. The twist in “Cherry” comes when he realizes he’s also developed feelings for Beth, who is initially hostile but eventually begins to warm up to him.
Linda and Beth behave more like roommates than they do parent and child. But when she started work on “Cherry,” Allen had just become a first-time mom, and she was “fully in mother mode.”
“I was probably getting three hours of sleep a night, so I wasn’t feeling very fresh,” she recalled. “That kind of helped with the age difference.”
In some ways, Beth has been forced into premature maturity: She spent years helping Linda hold herself together.
“I feel like there’s almost a reversal when the daughter becomes the mother, cleaning up after her,” Allen said. “In terms of competition (for Aaron), I think the daughter would feel competitive, wanting the attention of the boy. But I don’t know that Linda would feel competitive. There’s fun behind it and tenderness for her, so I don’t think she feels competitive in terms of who’s going to get the guy.”
Allen likes the way writer-director Jeffrey Fine’s film moves easily between raunchy comedy and character-based drama.
“At first, you think, ‘Is this the next ‘American Pie?’ And then the complications of the relationships are sort of like ‘The Graduate.’ You do get a sense of Linda as all of her life issues bubble up to the surface.
“The whole tone of the movie shifts two-thirds of the way through: It’s sort of light at first, but there are some real anti-heroes involved that drive the drama. You wonder if you can root for them, and in the end, you really do.”
"Cherry" also made Allen reflect on her days at Wellesley, where she says she got a wonderful education, even though it was “possibly the loneliest experience of my life.”
“When you’re 18, you don’t know what to do with your life,” Allen said. “I went to Wellesley, I was checking off all my requirements, but you don’t have — at least I did not have — an agenda. I didn’t use my education to benefit myself.
Choosing Hollywood after Wellesley was like joining the circus: You’re primed to go into corporate America.”
Returning to Wellesley to do “Smile,” Allen said, with a laugh, “may be the most surreal thing that ever happened to me.
“How trippy to go back to your own college campus with Julia Roberts and Maggie Gyllenhaal. But it’s kind of wonderful to have that movie as a souvenir of my college days.”