Perhaps no actress of the past few years has done a better job of communicating what it's like to be a teenager than Kirsten Dunst. In such movies as Drop Dead Gorgeous, Dick, Bring It On, The Virgin Suicides and Get Over It, Dunst has returned again and again to high school, playing everything from a perky cheerleader to a doomed prom queen ' a wider range than you might think. It's the element of doom that makes her an interesting actress, the sadness that was there even in Interview with a Vampire, where the 11-year-old Dunst played a very old soul trapped in a very young body. Nearly 10 years later, one still senses pain in the slump of Dunst's shoulders, the too-thin waist, the milky pallor of her skin. As Lux in The Virgin Suicides, she was a blond Venus, driving boys crazy with her unfathomable girlness before quietly killing herself, which drove the boys even more crazy.
That brings us to John Stockwell's teen drama crazy/beautiful, where Dunst plays the crazy/beautiful Nicole. We all knew someone like Nicole in high school ' the girl who could have been prom queen if she hadn't always been in the bathroom smoking cigarettes. In Nicole's case, I suspect she's been doing a lot more than smoking cigarettes, but it's hard to tell since the studio, Disney, forced Stockwell to tone down the drugs, alcohol, sex and profanity after last year's tongue-lashing at the McCain-Lieberman hearings. "We were trying to make a cautionary tale," Stockwell recently told Newsweek, "and we couldn't show the behavior we were trying to caution people away from." That's a shame, I suppose, but the message still comes through loud and clear: Nicole's screwed up. When we first see her, she's picking up trash under the Santa Monica Pier, punishment for having been caught DUI. It's here that she meets the boy who could save her life: Jay Hernandez's Carlos.
Carlos is everything Nicole isn't: an underprivileged overachiever from a warm, supportive family. They attend the same high school, which is just a hop, skip and jump from Nicole's fabulous Pacific Palisades home but is a two-hour bus ride for the enterprising Carlos, who lives in L.A.'s Boyle Heights neighborhood. crazy/beautiful rather overplays its reverse ethnic stereotypes, which, when you think about it, are just the flip side of the same old stereotypes. But there's a wonderful twist in the scene where Nicole's father, a liberal congressman nicely played by Bruce Davison, says to Carlos, "Stay away from my daughter," and then, after a pause: "She'll ruin your life." He's right, Nicole could ruin Carlos' life, which he's laid out in front of him, like a battle plan. But there's something about Nicole that appeals to Carlos: her reckless abandon, which he's barely tasted on his straight and narrow path to success.
crazy/beautiful reminds us of other movies, from Mad Love to Save the Last Dance, but those other movies didn't have Dunst, who inhabits her role like it's an old T-shirt she keeps meaning to throw out but can't allow herself to part with. Nicole's stuck, and she knows it, she just doesn't know how to get unstuck. And although I would start by recommending she wash her hair ' it's not dirty-blond, it's filthy-blond ' I admire the filmmakers for avoiding the pretty-in-pinkness that mars so many teen movies. If only they'd avoided the tidy resolution, which seems all the more tidy because of the fine mess that has come before. Hernandez is gently appealing as Carlos, by the way, and he's clearly a hunk. But it's Dunst who supplies the craziness. Even when she gets in over her head, as she does in some of her crying scenes, she beautifully captures the emotional awkwardness of a poor little rich girl from the wrong side of the tracks.