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Playing against stereotype

The new teen romance crazy/beautiful turns the tables on ethnic expectations when a young man from the tough side of town tries to rescue the girl who seems to have it all.

By STEVE PERSALL

© St. Petersburg Times, published June 28, 2001


The new teen romance crazy/beautiful turns the tables on ethnic expectations when a young man from the tough side of town tries to rescue the girl who seems to have it all.

Teen movie romances often include one lover from the wrong side of the tracks. These days, it can be surprising to learn exactly which side is which.

Nicole Oakley, the lovestruck girl at the center of crazy/beautiful, would have lived on the right side of the tracks in a movie 20 years ago. She's a white, privileged child, the daughter of a wealthy U.S. congressman. Her high school crush, Carlos Nunez, would have been from the wrong side: a depressed Latino neighborhood to be escaped only through the love of a white, privileged girl.

Times and stereotypes change. Today's youth, like many teens during the 1960s, show signs of rejecting family materialism -- as long as they're comfy, of course -- and embracing minority cultures. Hip-hop and salsa fashions bridge more racial gaps than a semester of diversity training.

crazy/beautiful reverses the roles for Nicole and Carlos. She's the one who needs rescuing, and he's just the young man to do it. Nicole abuses drugs and alcohol, skips class and rejects her parents. Her dirty hair and unkempt clothing are the mark of someone who simply doesn't care. Carlos loves his family, proves himself a fine scholar-athlete and commutes two hours to school for a better shot at a Naval Academy appointment.

It's a terrific notion that quickly undermines the movie. crazy/beautiful loses a key element for romance once we discover how pathetic/wonderful Nicole and Carlos are. We simply can't believe that he would risk a promising, hard-earned future for such an erratic, unattractive girl. Racial boundaries have nothing to do with it. She's a loser; he's a winner. The affair should end after Nicole causes Carlos' first after-school detention. But then, the movie would end, too.

Yet, crazy/beautiful remains interesting, mostly because Kirsten Dunst and newcomer Jay Hernandez so effortlessly portray that dubious romance. Director John Stockwell has two good character studies and two capable actors at his disposal. They might be better served by separate movies, or by screenwriters who wouldn't make their personalities so opposite.

Dunst works overtime to look grungy, although she's talented enough to project Nicole's despair with better hygiene. Nicole's reckless energy and dark introspections are admirably played. Hernandez has the look of a bona fide movie star and the acting chops to make it happen.

Carlos' life is more intriguing, simply because Stockwell takes more care to define Latin culture than most filmmakers do. On the other hand, Nicole's home life seems too familiar; misguided parents more concerned with careers or decorating than with their daughter. Of course, both teens get uncomfortable glimpses of the other's world. Minor racial tension arises as an afterthought, along with a late revelation about Nicole to spark a tidier ending than such a messy situation deserves.

Sure, love can conquer all. But, logic should have something to do with it.

Stockwell's targeted teen audience won't mind. crazy/beautiful appears as much in touch with adolescent sensibilities as American Beauty, and almost as racy. The film was submitted five times to the MPAA before earning a PG-13 rating after minor trims. Sex, drugs and alcohol abuse are still recurring themes, but always with consequences. That's a remarkably responsible angle for a youth-culture movie in 2001 and a good reason older teens should see it.

MOVIE REVIEW

crazy/beautiful

Grade: B-

Director: John Stockwell

Cast: Kirsten Dunst, Jay Hernandez, Bruce Davison, Lucinda Jenney, Rolando Molina

Screenplay: Phil Hay, Matt Manfredi

Rating: PG-13; sexual situations, profanity, teen drug and alcohol abuse

Running time: 95 min.

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