THE AISLE SEAT - by Mike McGranaghan


Teen movies come and go, partly because so many of them cover the same ground: geeks who want to be popular, girls who want to be asked to the prom by their dream guy, boys who want to steal the gorgeous girl from the obnoxious star quarterback. Another old standby is the plot about two kids from different sides of the tracks who fall in love. This plot is used again in the drama crazy/beautiful, but the difference is that this film injects intelligence into the formula.

Kirsten Dunst plays Nicole Oakley, a high school senior who lives to drink, take drugs, and get into trouble. She comes from money and privlege; her father Tom (Bruce Davison) is an influential Congressman. Despite having every material thing she could possibly want, Nicole is clearly in pain. In an early scene, we see her taking her daily antidepressants. She feels alone in the world - her mother is dead and Tom dotes more on his second wife Courtney (Lucinda Jenney) and their baby than on Nicole.

Kirsten Dunst and Jay Hernandez heat things up in the teen drama crazy/beautiful
Then she meets fellow classmate Carlos Nunez (Jay Hernandez), a hard-working kid who travels two hours each way to attend their good school. He has big plans for himself and is intensely focused on achieving his potential. Carlos and Nicole are attracted to one another from the second they are introduced. It becomes clear, though, that she is a potentially bad influence on him. Her constant desire to party (coupled with his desire to be with her) threatens to distract him from his goals. Eventually Tom confronts Carlos, warning the boy that Nicole is bad news. This is probably the most powerful scene in the film. The Congressman does not disapprove of the relationship (he's a liberal who prides himself on having friends of different ethnicity). The fact is, he doesn't want to see his daughter drag this kid down.

This exchange - the heart and soul of crazy/beautiful - perfectly illustrates why it is a step above most teen films. You might expect Tom to be opposed to his daughter's boyfriend for reasons involving socioeconomic status or race; those things are familiar terrain for the genre. Actually, he likes Carlos and doesn't want to see the boy's life screwed up by the daughter he views as crazy. As difficult as this message is for him to hear, Carlos kind of understands it and takes Tom's words to heart. Without revealing too much of what happens, crazy/beautiful is essentially about understanding that people with mental health issues are absolutely worthy of love. Nicole has problems, but isolating her from the world (and from the people who care about her) isn't going to make her feel better. Tom and Carlos learn that lesson in different ways.

The movie reminds me of Mad Love, the vastly underrated Drew Barrymore/Chris O'Donnell drama about a girl with bipolar disorder and the boy who is naive enough to think his love can cure her. Both films take the issue seriously: how can you best show your love and support to someone who suffers from a staggering depression? Do you stand by them through thick and thin, or do you make a quick exit so as to avoid potentially hurting them in the future?

This is a different kind of role for Kirsten Dunst. Usually she plays a wholesome, all-American girl. Here, she is troubled and wild, a girl whose problems run so deep that she can only hide from them by rebelling. Dunst is excellent as Nicole. This is a case where casting against type works wonders; the actress's appeal underscores the character's pain, making us understand that Nicole is not a bad kid - she's just one who needs some help. Newcomer Hernandez is also very good. He comes off with so much decency that you know why he wouldn't want to abandon Nicole. There is some sexual content in the movie, so it helps that the stars have great chemistry. Davison, a fine character actor, is the third piece of the puzzle. I know a Supporting Actor nomination is probably not a consideration (the Academy looks down on this kind of film) but Davison deserves one as the father who is incapable of reaching his daughter. It comes across that Tom loves Nicole; he just doesn't know what to do to help her.

crazy/beautiful was directed by John Stockwell, a former actor (Christine) who also helmed the superb HBO movie Cheaters. He paces the story energetically, capturing the carefree abandon of youth as well as the pain that often accompanies it. In the wrong hands, this could have been a sappy teen melodrama. After all, the plot here is not exactly knew or groundbreaking; it's the kind of thing that practically begs to be overdone. Despite some familiarity, crazy/beautiful is a sensitive story with an emotional punch. Nicole might think she's crazy but she's got people who love her, and that's all she really needs.

( out of four)

crazy/beautiful is rated for mature thematic material involving teens, drug/alcohol content, sexuality and language. The running time is 1 hour and 40 minutes.
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