Never Been Kissed takes the archetypal approach to the high school movie, although it starts off with a premise gleaned from a specific real-life example: journalist turned filmmaker Cameron Crowe’s Fast Times at Ridgemont High, an undercover expose of teenage mores first published in Rolling Stone.
Written by Abby Kohn and Marc Silverstein, Never Been Kissed is a cross between a John Hughes movie and Crowe’s Fast Times, but in this case the reporter who goes back to high school is re-entering her own heart of darkness. A copy editor for the Chicago Sun-Times, Josie Geller (Drew Barrymore) wants nothing more than to be a writer. So when her youthful appearance gets her an undercover assignment, she jumps at it. But her brother, Rob (David Arquette), is doubtful. He reminds her that she was a super-geek in high school, taunted with the nickname "Josie Grossie."
Using flashbacks, director Raja Gosnell creates a textbook of adolescent horrors that Barrymore – one of the film’s producers – dives into headfirst. Those memories become palpable for the audience, which feels empathic pain as the still awkward Josie attempts to establish herself with the high school’s cool clique.
There’s very little about Never Been Kissed that’s realistic – anyone who’s ever worked at a newspaper will laugh that the filmmakers gave a lowly copy editor her own office and assistant. But it does ring true emotionally.
Josie’s friendship with a compassionate, intelligent outsider (Leelee Sobieski), her reliance on an outgoing Sun-Times colleague (Molly Shannon), and the growing relationship between this budding storyteller and her high school English teacher (Michael Vartan) are enlivened by the actors involved, who spike the clichés with real feelings.
By being so generic – the high school kids all fall into easily categorized types and all conflicts revolve around the establishment of a pecking order – Never Been Kissed wants to tap into the universality of high school as a transformative experience. That doesn’t really work for anyone but Josie, who Drew Barrymore beautifully plays as a humiliated ugly duckling who gets a second chance to become a swan.
Serena Donadoni writes about film for the Metro Times. E-mail her at [email protected].
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