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Book-Movie-Music Reviews by Clark Humphrey.

You're In High School Again

Film/TV essay, 4/14/99

High school, the modern grownup theory seems to go, is most fondly remembered by those who were either too spaced out at the time (either naturally or chemically) to notice what was really going on at the time or by those who were never as popular or powerful since. That notion hasn't stopped the making of movies and TV shows about really hot, beautiful, and fun-lovin' teens. But, since the mid-'80s, the theory has informed a handful of productions with a sense of the underlying terrors and pressures beneath the surface of even the most "wholesome" middle-class adolescences--while giving grownup actors the chance to act all goofy and immature on screen.

These films and shows have allowed their adult stars to play faux teens who are really authors (Fast Times at Ridgemont High), undercover cops (the filmed-in-Vancouver series 21 Jump Street), mob-escapees (Hidin' Out), or simply adult women who need to go through the ol' teen traumas one more time as a learning experience (Peggy Sue Got Married, Romy and Michelle's High School Reunion, Nadine's storyline in Twin Peaks).

Now, we've got two of-age actresses reliving their supposed "simpler times" and finding them not all that simple. One's a big-name star in a bigtime movie. (You can tell it's a bigtime movie, because the closing credits list 53 actors and 54 excerpted pop songs!). The other's a little known improv actress, co-creating and starring in a cable series that's either a surrealistically-improbable sitcom or an over-the-top sketch extended to 13 half hours.

First, the big expensive one.

Never Been Kissed combines the Romy and Michelle theme of fixing teen-socialization mistakes after the fact with the Fast Times shtick of the undercover reporter assigned to learn what Those Kids Today are really like. Onetime Seattleite Drew Barrymore leaves little scenery unchewed as a meticulous, presumably virginal Chicago Sun-Times word-wrangler who gets to live as a high school senior for one semester and do all the things she never got to do in her real teens--to drink at a kegger, to eat pot-laced cake, to dump the nerds' clique to become one of the popular girls, and to snag a hunky English teacher for her very own. There are a few more plot complications than that, but they're not important. What's important is Barrymore's incessant mugging, accompanied by syrupy string music that bellows up whenever the brief snippets of rock songs (for the all-important tie-in "soundtrack" CD and accompanying music videos) aren't playing. It's an inconsequential little future Showtime time-filler, despite (or because of) the Barrymore character's insistence that it's all a major life-and-death matter. On the other hand, if you cut some of the mild sex talk, you'd have a suitable (if too long) ABC After School Special in which our plucky heroine learns some valuable life lessons and everybody lives happily ever after.

Conversely, with a little more sex talk it might have come closer to Strangers With Candy, Comedy Central's current attempt to build on its South Park notoriety. Billed as "The After-Hours After School Special," it's a vehicle for star Amy Sedaris to do the second-adolescence shtick for broad laffs. The setup: She's a 42-year-old dropout, who's grown a little old for her happy-go-lucky life of drinking and whoring; so she decided to go legit, move back in with what's left of her birth family, and start all over again in school. Playing the role as a cross between Jan Brady and Edina from Absolutely Fabulous, Sedaris grins perkily as she instigates a different social faux pas (sometimes leading to a death, or worse) in each episode, trying desperately to become popular with the "normal" girls young enough to be her illegitimate daughters (of whom she just might have a few). As you might imagine from a Comedy Central series, Strangers With Candy wouldn't have ever passed the Standards and Practices offices of the old broadcast networks. But it's more than just un-PC. It's genuinely funny. (Which is a lot more than can be said of a lot of would-be "outrageous" attempts at un-PC humor these days.)

Our lesson at the end of the day: Some comedies, like some schoolgirls, try too hard to fit in by aping the moves and clothes and attitudes that are supposed to make one popular. But some comedies, again like some schoolgirls, win something much more important than popularity by just being their own lovable, outlandish selves. Never Been Kissed is the prom queen who'll soon become an obscure memory. Strangers With Candy is the one who seems the wallflower today, but everyone in future years will claim to have been her best friend.

© 2000 Clark Humphrey, clark@speakeasy.org