Sensitive but highly responsible and straight-laced guys have been falling for sensitive but high-maintenance and irresponsible girls in movies since before they started selling popcorn from theater concession stands. That theme has been played for comedy (“Bringing Up Baby”) or poignancy (“The Sterile Cuckoo”), and its appeal is enduring, especially to teenagers, which is where this latest entry will find its most sympathetic audience.
Kirsten Dunst plays Nicole, the troubled daughter of a California congressman (Bruce Davison). She and her best friend Matty spend as much of their time as possible either getting wasted, getting into trouble, or both. She meets Carlos (Jay Hernandez), a poor but hard-working Latino boy who has to get up at 5 am to get to school and who dreams of going to the Naval Academy to become a pilot.
Nicole and Carlos are drawn to each other. At first, Nicole treats him like another drug. She brings him back to her house, tosses him a condom, and unzips her pants. He is another way to erase her feelings and hurt her father. But his tenderness and authenticity and his interest in knowing and loving the real Nicole, not the bad girl or the fun girl or the up for anything girl she can pretend to be make her want to deserve him.
Carlos has felt the burden of delivering all his family’s dreams of achievement. Every second of his life is planned. He is drawn to Nicole’s spontaneity and warmth. But he does not know if he is prepared to risk everything he has worked for to try to save her from herself.
There is nothing new here, but Dunst and Hernandez deliver warm, thoughtful performances as the two leads. Dunst is a little beyond her range, but deserves credit for taking on a complex challenge and being willing to present herself as vulnerable and without a movie-star glow. The director (who also did the first-rate docudrama “Cheaters,” about a real-life Chicago high school team that cheated on a scholastic competition) has a real feel for teenagers.
The weakest points are the cardboard character bad guys (the evil stepmother, played by the talented Lucinda Jenney, is an inexcusable stereotype) and the teen-dream resolution, in which everything turns out all right after a parent admits it was all his fault and sees the light. But that is just one more aspect of this teen fantasy that will appeal to its target audience. Many movies about teenage life feel more authentic to adults (who, after all, create them) than to teens themselves. I suspect that this will seem false to adults, but will seem real to a lot of 15-year-olds, whose stage of life leaves them naturally hypersensitive and with heightened emotions. They will also identify with the way the film portrays the importance (and unconditional support) of friends, the insensitivity of classmates and teachers, and the neglect of parents.
Parents should know that the movie includes very strong language, drug use and drinking by teenagers, driving under the influence, sexual references and situations, and difficult emotional confrontations. An off-camera suicide and suicide attempts are discussed. The romance is inter-racial, triggering some hostility from both sides, and there is an ugly racial dispute.
Families who see this movie should discuss the difficulty Nicole and her father have in showing love for one another, the way that Carlos does not want to have sex with Nicole until he can be sure it is for the right reason and at the right time in their relationship and the way that Nicole’s love for Carlos (and for her sister, Megan) makes her want to get better so that she can feel she deserves to be loved in return. When did Carlos stop being a symbol to Nicole and start being a human being?
Families who like this movie will also like “Save the Last Dance” and “The Sterile Cuckoo.”