Thursday, April 14, 2011
She's All That Movie Review: Throwaway High School Social Classes
First published in The Connecticut College Voice on 5 February 1999. I have made some minor editorial adjustments, but nothing that affects the content of the review.
He’s the coolest kid in school. He parks in a space marked “Reserved for Class President,” has his picture hanging on the wall in the school, says ‘Hi’ to everyone. Some stare in amazement as he goes by, “He spoke to me!” His name is Zach . He’s played by Freddie Prinze, Jr., and he also dates the prettiest, most popular girl in school, who happens to be a shoo-in for Prom Queen.
So what’s this guy to do when his girlfriend dumps him for Brock Hudson (Matthew Lillard), a former cast member of “The Real World?” How about a bet? Zach bets his best friend that he can take any girl in the school and turn her into the Prom Queen in six weeks. The next thing they need is a hapless victim – Lainie (Rachael Leigh Cook) – the quiet, geeky artist. Thus is the situation in the new teen comedy She’s All That.
From the outset, Lainie is presented as an extreme version of her character much like Zach was. We see her in the art classroom, painting a dark, foreboding picture. Her teacher isn’t happy because it doesn’t have enough “Lainie” in it. Not even her fellow art students like her. They tell her that the best artists were only respected “post humously [sic],” so that maybe she should kill herself now to achieve recognition. But as the film progresses, their respective characters begin to round themselves out, and the director allows us to see them as people rather than caricatures of high school social classes.
Zach’s first challenge is to get this girl to go out with him, and after that, to convince the school that she’s one of the “cool kids.” Of course the inevitable happens – something that Zach didn’t expect to happen, but we did – he falls in love with her for real. But we never understand why he falls for her so hard. What is it about Lainie? One would think it’s her spectacular beauty after Zach’s sister (Anna Paquin) gives her a makeover. But then, why does it seem he truly cares for her earlier that same day when they go to the beach together. Screenwriter Lee Fleming apparently expects us to simply accept it. It’s not enough.
The night of her fabulous makeover, Zach takes her to a party at a friend’s house, where Lainie has a face-to-face with Zach’s ex. She tells Lainie exactly how worthless she really is in the eyes of the popular crowd – just one in a series of nasty and downright cruel things she says and does after meeting her. Somehow, this event at the party is reason enough for Lainie to earn a Prom Queen nomination. I don’t know how that works. I went to high school and I’m pretty sure it was a little more complicated than that. It’s just one more inexplicable circumstance.
As a film about teen social classes and situations, it mostly works. Director Robert Iscove has a handle on what it’s like being a teen, specifically the awkwardness that comes from being the oddball. Unlike the film’s 80’s counterpart Can’t Buy Me Love, this film doesn’t pound a preachy message into our heads. That film is kind of the reverse of this one, in which the geek buys his way in to the popular world by giving the most beautiful girl in school $1000 insisting that if she dates him for one month he will achieve unprecedented popularity. The theme of both films, implicit in this one, explicit in the other is that it would actually work. Because high school social systems are not based on anyone’s honest personal qualities but the way they carry themselves, who they date, how they dress and all other things superficial.
As for the few things that are distracting from the film’s cute sort of grace, such as the spontaneous rap put together to campaign for Lainie as Prom Queen. Or the scene at the prom when Lainie’s art teacher tells her how wonderful her final piece was and that she should hold on to whatever brought it out of her (obviously it was Zach).
So always remember that your popularity depends only on your friends, not you, and that horrible titles don’t always mean horrible movies.