When it comes to talking about movies, the internets can be an ugly, hateful place, devoted to tearing down anything and everything but rarely stopping to build anything up (unless it's directed by Christopher Nolan). And while we here at F This Movie! are often guilty of bitter negativity, we do (believe it or not) try and temper our hate with thoughtful reasoning and optimism for the endless possibility of something better. Because a spoonful of sugar makes the arsenic taste slightly less poisony. Or something.
It is in this spirit of positivity that I want to start championing the movies we love, especially when they might not be the most obvious choices. So what better place to start than with a long-forgotten teen comedy?
Much of the last seven days of movie writing online have been devoted to Twilight: Breaking Dawn Part 1 and how it's the worst thing that so many people like. Some of the pieces are carefully considered and written in all caps, like this one. Most are just bile that dismiss the movie without taking much time to consider what any of it means, for better or worse. And as much as I would love to pile on, I haven't seen it. I saw the first two Twilight movies, and I don't get the appeal. I don't think they're very good, but I also don't think they're for me. As much as I like what Film Crit Hulk has to say about the series, it's not really me he's talking to. I wish the Twilight fans would read the piece (they will not) and consider what he has to say about this thing that they love. Because, as someone very wise recently said to me, that is what the world needs more of: people thinking about the things they like and why they like them.
What I'm saying is that not all movies about teenage romance have to be all angsty and serious and place such emphasis on a single relationship. Dating in your teens isn't about meeting the one person you are destined to be with forever and doing whatever it takes to be together. It's about meeting someone you like and who likes you, and learning how to care about someone in that way and how to let him or her care for you. It's more about the function of learning of to be in a relationship than it is about the person you are with. Bad relationships teach us about what we do and don't want in a partner, and what we do and don't like about ourselves in a relationship. So do the good ones. That's kind of what brought me to the 1999 teen comedy/Shakespeare rip-off 10 Things I Hate About You, because that's what the movie is about. Sort of.
It’s probably a stretch to say I love 10 Things I Hate About You. I don’t loooove it. I wouldn’t marry it and have 10,000 of its babies. But it’s been on my mind lately, and as an unfairly maligned teen comedy it seemed like a perfect fit for what I so often want to do at F This Movie!: defend movies that are better than people give them credit for being. And though it may be an ineffectual little teen romance, 10 Things I Hate About You fits that bill.
But, believe it or not, 10 Things I Hate About You is something special. It’s smarter and cooler than its teen comedy brethren. Better yet, it’s sincere and, like the best films of John Hughes, treats the feelings and desires of its young characters with respect. It’s refreshingly honest and straightforward about sex and partying, recognizing that kids do both and needn’t be defined by either (it’s kind of remarkable that the movie got a PG-13 rating; these days, there’s no question it would get an R and have been softened down, which would be a shame). There’s also a go-for-broke approach to the comedy, likely the result of TV director Gil Junger making his first feature film and being willing to take chances; the result is a comedy that gets laughs from clever dialogue as well as some truly bizarre slapstick elements. Somehow, though, Junger pulls it all together into something that feels like a cohesive, organic piece -- the more obvious gags don’t stick out as setpieces the way they do in less successful teen comedies (probably because they never involve characters making pee-pee or poo-poo). There’s also that cast: star-making turns from Heath Ledger and Julia Stiles, plus funny supporting performances by Larry Miller, Allison Janney and David Krumholtz. And, in addition to Ledger, you’ve got a very young Joseph Gordon-Levitt (who is sweet and goofy); I don’t think I’ve seen two of the best actors of their generation together in a movie made for teenagers since Sean Penn and Nicolas Cage shared the screen in Fast Times at Ridgemont High. Or Anthony Michael Hall and Ilan Mitchell-Smith in Weird Science. But mostly the first one.
The Dark Knight. It took me a long time to warm up to Ledger as an actor; it’s not that he was ever bad in movies, just that he made a whole lot of bad movies that I had no interest in seeing (The Order? The Four Feathers? Ned Kelly?) and the movies of his I did see didn’t do much for me (The Patriot, Lords of Dogtown, The Brothers Grimm). I was impressed by his small role in Monster’s Ball (probably because I still had it in my head that he was a lightweight, and because SPOILER he had the good sense to check out before it went from really depressing to crazy super blow-your-head-off depressing) and am one of a small group of people who really like A Knight’s Tale, but that was about it. It wasn’t until Brokeback Mountain, I guess, that I started seeing him in a different light. Coupled with his performances in I’m Not There (a potential future entry for “Movies I Love”) and The Dark Knight (full disclosure: I was very against his casting when I first heard about it, but he’s so great in the part that fuck me), Ledger was actually becoming one of my favorite actors right around the time he died at age 29. And no movie makes me miss him more than this one.
Why is that? I think it’s because he’s so young and has his whole career and life still ahead of him, and watching him now as a 20-year old kid and knowing how it all ends makes his performance a lot more poignant. He’s not particularly revelatory in the film -- he’s charming enough, but there’s little that suggests of what he would eventually be capable. But what I really like about Heath Ledger in the movie (and the same could be said about Julia Stiles, and just about the entire cast with the exception of Andrew Keegan, who plays a cartoonish buffoon like he’s acting in any other teen comedy and not one as special as this) is that he takes all of this seriously. He doesn’t brood or go method or anything (there’s little worse than a ‘look-ma-I-can-act’ performance in a movie that absolutely doesn’t call for it), but he treats the character with intelligence and respect. It’s a quality that would define his work for the remainder of his career. Here he’s just a kid trying to do a good job, and that’s what makes it sad to know he’s gone.
There’s something else I really like about 10 Things I Hate About You that I don’t see in a lot of other movies targeted at teenagers: Ledger and Stiles aren’t afraid to be physical with one another. That may seem like a small thing, but it’s another example of the way that the film treats its young characters with respect. I’m not saying the leads are two kids constantly playing grab-ass; in fact, there’s not a whole lot of physicality between them. When there is, though, both actors throw themselves into it -- call it chemistry or whatever, but there’s a real maturity and sensitivity to the way they touch one another. It’s so rare to see romance in teen films that isn’t boiled down to a) horny groping or b) sweeping, only-in-a-movie gestures (the kiss that comes at the end of a movie that rarely feels like anything but two actors doing another take). To see two characters who are smart, who know what they want and who genuinely care for one another -- particularly as the center of a movie with more than a few elements of slapstick and silliness -- grounds 10 Things I Hate About You in a believable reality matched by few other films for teenagers (though Say Anything comes to mind).
I hate the way you talk to me,
and the way you cut your hair.
I hate the way you drive my car,
I hate it when you stare.
I hate your big dumb combat boots
and the way you read my mind.
I hate you so much it makes me sick,
it even makes me rhyme.
I hate the way you’re always right,
I hate it when you lie.
I hate it when you make me laugh,
even worse when you make me cry.
I hate it when you’re not around,
and the fact that you didn’t call.
But mostly I hate the way I don’t hate you,
not even close
not even a little bit
not even at all.
On the 10th anniversary DVD edition of the film that came out a couple of years ago, there’s an extended interview with the movie’s writers, Karen Lutz and Kirsten Smith, in which they talk about how proud they are of that poem and the way its resonated with fans of the film -- that the whole movie builds towards that moment and if they had failed to stick that poem, everything else could have collapsed.
Only here’s the thing: the poem sucks. And that’s what’s great about it.
I’ve always found the poem scene to be one of the best in the movie, but I seem to be at tremendous odds with Lutz and Smith (wouldn’t be the first time, and it won’t be the last...) about what it is that makes that scene work. They seem to think it’s the cleverness and romanticism of their prose. Wrong. The poem is utterly mediocre, but that’s why it works. It’s exactly the kind of poem a high school girl would write and be proud enough of to read in front of her class. Only it’s not great. That line about “it even makes me rhyme?” Barf. But I can picture the writers being very proud of themselves when they came up with that one.
Still, the scene works. It’s yet another believably high-school moment in a movie that surprisingly filled with them (another movie would have had a poem that’s way outside of Kat’s capabilities as a writer, which would have pulled me right out of the scene). But what really makes the scene work is the way that Julia Stiles sells it -- she rushes through the lines at first, almost embarrassed of what she’s reading (and rightfully so). Then she gets to that “rhyme” line and she’s back to being sarcastic and defensive. From there, though, it’s a steady descent into full-on tears, and Stiles gets every beat of it just right. I've never been a big of Julia Stiles (more accurately, I've never bothered to form an opinion of Julia Stiles), but her performance in this movie suggests she would go on to have a career that's very different than the one she actually had. When, at the end of the poem, she finally looks up from the paper and faces down Heath Ledger, it’s a powerful reminder of just how deeply these teenage characters are capable of feeling, and how even stupid teen-movie actions have real consequences. It’s incredibly moving for a scene that's otherwise perfunctory and shouldn’t be moving at all.
It’s a little unusual that I’ve chosen to kick off this feature with a seemingly dispensable (or an actually dispensable) teen movie. Part of the reason is because I was originally going to do this in the order in which I come across the titles on my DVD shelves, and the numerical titles are first. I’ve given up on that idea, however, because I’d rather write about the movies that I’m living with as I’m living with them. And while I certainly don’t love the movie the way I love future films in this series (Starship Troopers or Joe Versus the Volcano or True Romance or Phantom of the Paradise or Streets of Fire), I’ve always had a real love of the teen romantic comedy. 10 Things I Hate About You is a terrific entry in the genre -- the best of its kind since the aforementioned days of classic Hughes. It’s not a great movie. It’s just a movie I love.