Get ready. The success of movies like “Scream” has led to an upcoming avalanche of movies transplanting every possible movie plot into high school. This one takes “Pygmalion” with a few touches from “Pretty in Pink,” “Easter Parade,” “Cinderella,” and “Can’t Buy Me Love.” It falls smack dab in the middle of a genre I call “the makeover movie,” in which Our Heroine achieves success through good grooming and accessorizing. The result here is uneven, with some good performances and even some witty commentary on teen culture, but beware — the raunchy references make this inappropriate for younger teens, and even parents of mature high schoolers might want to consider it carefully.
Zach, the most popular and talented boy in high school (Freddie Prinze, Jr.) gets dumped by his beautiful but mean girlfriend the day after spring vacation of their senior year. She has met an MTV-celebrity (Matthew Lillard, hilarious as a self-obsessed gross-out champion based on MTV’s legendary Puck). Zach and his best friend bet that he can take any girl in school and get her elected prom queen before the end of school. The choice is drab Laney Boggs (Rachael Leigh Cook), who is coping with her mother’s death by taking care of her father and brother and by worrying about problems throughout the world instead of working through her own feelings of loss.
Laney is one of the least persuasive ugly ducklings in the history of movies. She shucks her glasses and her overalls, and my goodness! She’s beautiful! And my goodness! Zach finds himself actually caring for her. The plot is almost numbingly predictable, but one of the movie’s strengths it that it makes clear that Zach and Laney have both limited themselves by defining themselves before they have really had a chance to find out who they are.
The movie’s other strengths are Prinze, who has a wonderful screen presence and the magnificent Anna Paquin as his younger sister. Cook’s performance is flat by comparison. Jodi Lyn O’Keefe is a caricature as Zach’s former girlfriend.
Parental concerns include strong language, teen drinking, and casual sex (though not by the main characters). Zach’s friend brags that he is going to get Laney to have sex with him in a hotel room he has arranged for the occasion. For some reason, when Laney’s friend overhears this, instead of making the stunningly obvious move of telling Laney what the guy has in mind, he races around trying to get the message to someone else. Parents should know that the movie includes an ugly and graphic scene in which a school bully torments Laney’s hearing-impaired brother by reaching into his pants to grab some pubic hair and putting it on his pizza. Zach then forces the bully and his friend to eat it. Yuck.