This series is inspired by the Movie Lottery blog, whose author is picking DVD titles from a hat in order to decide which films to watch. I’ve selected another one from the hat to watch and present my review below.
Unlike the previous films I’ve picked from a hat as part of my ‘Movie Lottery’ series, this is one I know pretty well, I think. I’ve watched it many times over the years, and have always enjoyed it, specifically for its likeable ensemble of young actors near the beginnings of their respective film careers. Thinking about it again with the aim of writing a review, I find myself perhaps a little more aware of where its strengths and weaknesses lie. The style, such as it is, leans heavily on the sounds and fashions of the 1990s, and in the end it really does depend on those acting performances, alongside the sparky script, which draws heavily from its trend-setting antecedent Clueless (1995), though here the teen translation is of Shakespeare (where that film took on Jane Austen).
The particular Shakespeare play in question, The Taming of the Shrew, is not one of his best and furnishes a rather silly plot, which the screenwriters have gamely followed through with. Newly arrived at Padua High School, Cameron (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) becomes infatuated with the coquettish Bianca (Larisa Oleynik), but her father prevents her from dating unless her older sister Kat (Julia Stiles) does too. So in order to go out with Bianca, Cameron must hook up her sister, for which purpose the school bad boy Patrick Verona suits well (Heath Ledger). The premise doesn’t always make a lot of sense, but here it helps to be adapting one of the Bard’s lesser achievements, so comparisons don’t come off badly for the film.
As mentioned, though, it’s the acting of the ensemble cast that carries the day. Gordon-Levitt, coming from his breakthrough role on television’s Third Rock from the Sun, has an easygoing charm which is matched by a similarly young Heath Ledger (whose pretty face never quite carries off the dangerous reputation he is supposed to have, but then that’s in keeping with the brightly upbeat look of the piece). Oleynik as Bianca is appropriately vacuous and self-obsessed (though her character arc thankfully moves a little forward from this over the course of the film), while Stiles as the ‘shrew’ is here no doubt indebted to Buffy the Vampire Slayer, being a late-90s vision of feminist empowerment (via a bit of shouty girl punk rock; there are on-trend namechecks given to Bikini Kill and the Raincoats, though the soundtrack is rather more fixated on power pop in that peculiarly ska-inspired niche of the era).
While these pretty young teen actors are fine at following through the central romantic plot, their stories are at heart a bit dull. Therefore an essential element of the film is the supporting cast, providing the comic relief, and poking fun at the silly romantic conceits of the central storyline. David Krumholtz is excellent as a geeky AV nerd, who at the outset gets to deliver the genre’s requisite scene where the high school’s various subcultures are pointed out. The other key figures bringing the kids’ highflown romantic ideas down to earth are all adults: Allison Janney as the school’s sarcastic guidance counsellor; Daryl Mitchell as the English teacher; and Larry Miller as Kat and Bianca’s controlling (but loving) dad. All three do an excellent job at invigorating the film.
The performances and those brightly-coloured 90s fashions aside, there’s some nice featuring of the Seattle locations, but otherwise the film’s style is fairly pedestrian. It’s an enjoyable confection of a film that puts itself above others in this crowded teen film genre by virtue of a sharp script, well-delivered by the youthful cast.
Director Gil Junger; Writers Karen McCullah Lutz and Kirsten Smith; Cinematographer Mark Irwin; Starring Julia Stiles, Heath Ledger, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, David Krumholtz, Allison Janney; Length 93 minutes.
Seen at Manners Mall Cinema, Wellington, Sunday 6 June 1999 (and on DVD at home, London, on numerous occasions, most recently Sunday 9 June 2013).