With all the hackneyed, gag-inducing Freddie Prinze, Jr.-style teen romances coming out over the last few years, I've become so cynical about the genre that even with an extremely talented actress like Kirsten Dunst in the lead, I went into "crazy/beautiful" with a chip on my shoulder.
Dunst proved her ability to spot the quality teenybopper scripts last year when she made "Bring It On," the only good cheerleader movie I've ever seen. But playing the rebellious daughter of a Los Angeles congressman? A troubled, party-hardy girl who couples with an academically ambitious Latino boy from the wrong side of the tracks? Boy did that sound like it could go south in a hurry.
Well, I should have trusted Dunst. The ambitiously three-dimensional "crazy/beautiful" never panders or preaches, never turns perky or shallow, and -- gasp! -- its plot doesn't depend on some silly sitcom misunderstanding between boyfriend and girlfriend that is resolved in the last reel with a pat reconciliation followed by a soft-focus freeze-frame on their happy faces.
"crazy/beautiful" is powered by its intimately realistic personalities -- complicated, cloudy sexpot Nicole (Dunst), who lives for the moment, and resolutely focused Carlos (newcomer Jay Hernandez), who dreams of going to the Annapolis Naval Academy. He so wants to become a fighter pilot that he riding a bus two hours a day from the barrio to attend her Pacific Palisades high school for a better education.
During a playful and sexy getting-to-know-you passage (which largely eschew the clichés of such scenes), these two young actors flesh out their characters so thoroughly that all stereotypes fade away. As they fall in love, a genuine, honest bond forms between them that no cheap plot device could put asunder.
But their relationship is tested when Nicole's upstanding lawmaker pop (Bruce Davison) offers to sponsor Carlos' Navy application on the condition that the boy stay away from his daughter -- not for her sake, but because her dad sees Nicole as a destructive force that could derail Carlos' promising shot at a better life.
Throughout "crazy/beautiful" I took sarcastic notes about where I thought the movie was going to go turn trite and every time I was wrong. "Why can't Carlos show his mettle by being with Nicole and staying on track," I wrote in anticipation of cheap, prefabricated melodrama. Then he did just that.
"Why don't they level with each other?" I wrote when Carlos starts avoiding Nicole after his meeting with her father. Then they do!
When Carlos' neighborhood posse starts a fight with his white football buddies, I was sure the movie was going to turn into a lame story about his struggle to fit into two worlds. Wrong again.
Director (and former actor) John Stockwell keeps his focus on the extremely sensual (PG-13? Just barely!) and very real love story, which finds its conflict in Nicole's stormy, self-destructive psyche.
Without the deliberately ostentatious irony of an actress angling for accolades, Dunst gives absolute authenticity to Nicole's manic moods. She goes from squealing, giggling flirt while drunk with her rabblerousing best friend (Taryn Manning) to shaking, crying breakdowns during confrontations with her father (whose love is pained but unconditional) and her uptight yuppie stepmom (the only stock character in the film). Dunst wears Nicole's sexuality on her sleeve too (the girl is 70 percent naked for 90 percent of the movie), without coming off like a boy toy.
Hernandez keeps pace, playing his own character's conflict close to his chest as he tries to balance his ambition with his undying devotion to a girl who could drag him down like a boat anchor.
With lesser actors who didn't plumb the souls and the individuality of their characters, "crazy/beautiful" could have become generic. A director who just went through the motions could have sunk it too, but while Stockwell's inexperience shows at times (he ends the film with a cheap flashback montage of the movie's happy moments), he doesn't succumb completely to the soundtrack-driven style of the day. He shoots the film in interestingly monochromatic hues of blue and red, and makes the love scenes memorably heated and visceral.
I might be over-stating here because I still have a bad taste in my mouth from banal movies like "Boys & Girls," "Down To You," "Drive Me Crazy," "Can't Hardly Wait" and "She's All That," but "crazy/beautiful" may be one of the most emotionally authentic and least manipulative teenage romantic dramas I've ever seen.