Hello, everyone! At least once a day, I find myself wondering what the hell they were smoking back in the 90s. The 80s I get: Reagan, capitalism, Top Gun, Ralph Lauren, cocaine, etc. But every time I watch a movie from the 1990s, I’m struck by how bizarre they seem in retrospect. The newest entry in the “what on Earth were they thinking” genre is the Drew Barrymore rom-com Never Been Kissed. I went into this movie expecting a light-hearted romantic comedy, and instead got a movie that was neither romantic nor comedic, but instead malicious, creepy, and squirm-inducing. Needless to say, I am still mourning the 120 minutes I wasted watching this drivel.
Synopsis: Working as a copywriter for the Chicago Sun-Times, 25-year-old Josie Geller is desperate to prove herself as a reporter. When she’s tasked with going undercover as a student at a nearby high school, Josie thinks it will give her an opportunity to re-do her humiliating experience as a nerdy girl who was taunted mercilessly by the cool kids in her grade. But high school is not as easy as it seems, and Josie soon finds herself plagued by the same problems that haunted her in the past. Her English teacher, Mr. Coulson, sees the good in her, but will anyone else? Determined to rewrite the past and chase down a good story, Josie devotes herself to becoming a cool kid at any cost.
My thoughts: The movie begins innocuously enough, with a rom-com tale as old as time: a shy woman, experiencing a bit of arrested development, must go out of her comfort zone and confront old fears to discover her true self and meet her true love. While the main character usually has some flaws, like awkwardness, clumsiness, or shyness, she also has many strengths, and her journey to self-realization often ends up with her landing back in the same place, a little wiser, but none the worse for wear.
The problem with Josie Geller is that her flaws are so apparent, and so exaggerated, that her strengths go unnoticed. Instead of being awkward, Josie has zero social graces, and almost zero self-awareness of her place in society. Instead of being clumsy, Josie runs straight into doors and falls flat on her face. Instead of being shy, Josie is extroverted to a fault, and puts herself into incredibly embarrassing situations. Josie is the type of character that the audience pities, not the type they root for, and that makes her role as the protagonist difficult to swallow. It’s not that movies can’t revolve around awkward main characters; films like Napoleon Dynamite, and TV shows like 30 Rock and Parks and Rec show that it’s possible to fall in love with weirdos, as long as they love themselves just as much as we love them. It’s difficult to like Josie Geller because it’s clear that she doesn’t like herself. That might work in a drama, but for a comedy, I don’t want my first emotional reaction to a character to be pity.
High school movies always feature a dose of humiliation, but the best ones know that too heavy a hand can unbalance the tone of a comedic movie. Mean Girls, for instance, which has a somewhat similar plot to Never Been Kissed, put the main character through her paces, but also allowed her moments of victory. Never Been Kissed throws so much humiliation at its main character, and so little kindness, that watching the movie starts to feel like second-hand torture. In her first day as an undercover student, Josie’s car is stolen as a prank, she’s mocked by the cool kids for her horribly outdated clothing, and she’s further mocked by the most popular guy in school, Guy Perkins. While Josie finds a friend in Aldys, a mathlete with a clique of like-minded friends, she keeps trying to fit in with the popular kids, only to be repeatedly mocked and rebuffed for trying.
Watching her fail over and over is embarrassing, but Josie’s past is even worse than her present. We learn that as a high schooler, she read a romantic poem to the most popular guy in school, and as revenge, he tricked her into getting ready for the prom, then egged her from his limo while he and his date drove by. Knowing the extent of Josie’s humiliation makes her present actions even more excruciating to watch. For most of the movie, I wanted to slap her out of her delusion and bring her into the real world.
As a 25-year-old with a moderately successful career and an apartment, Josie shouldn’t give a fuck what a bunch of 17-year-olds think about her, but alas, despite almost a decade for self-reflection, she’s still wrapped up in her need to be accepted by narcissistic high schoolers. This is supposed to be comedy, not a depressing glimpse into Josie’s quarter-life crisis.
In the end, Josie finally grows a spine, and watching her scream at a bunch of self-obsessed teens almost makes this movie worth it. At least, until you think about the other worst part of this movie: the romance. That’s right folks, we get not one but two statutory rape romances in this movie.
When Josie first meets Sam Coulson, her English teacher, he’s so impressed by her answer to a question (what’s a pastoral comedy? Hint, it doesn’t have to do with milk.) that he asks her whether she’s really 17. Already, we’re getting weird vibes from him, but it only gets worse. He sits with her on a Ferris wheel at a school event and tells her that when she’s his age, guys will be lining up around the block for her. They spend so much time together that Josie’s colleagues all joke about the chemistry between them. Josie may be 25, but Sam Coulson thinks she’s 17, and worse, when he finds out her true age, he gets angry at her, telling her that he can’t look the same way at her now that he knows she’s not 17. He even admits to feeling conflicted because he found her attractive. Which is like, what? If a teacher finds his underage student attractive and keeps it to himself, that’s one thing. But if he actively goes out of his way to flirt with her, confide in her, dance (!!) with her at a school dance, stare at her longingly, and then yell at her when he finds out that she’s actually a consenting adult, it’s not okay! IT’S NOT OKAY, 1999!
Their relationship is incredibly gross and not in the least romantic and every time they appeared together on screen I reflexively screamed “STOP!” in the vain hope that he would disappear and Josie could fall in love with someone who didn’t lust after underage girls. But if that’s not enough, there’s also the incredibly bizarre subplot where Josie’s brother Rob, who is 23, also enrolls in high school, pretends to be 17, starts dating a 16-year-old, and has to graciously turn down her offer of prom night sex. And it’s all played for laughs, because as the men in this movie repeatedly say, “they didn’t make them like that in my day,” so they must be more mature than they seem.
I know that there is a deeper message to this movie. It’s a story about how trauma can keep people from maturing and truly living their lives. And while that’s an important message for a movie to have, it’s wrapped up in such uncomfortable packaging that it gets lost in the cringe. The payoff, when it comes, is too little, too late, and the ending is complete wish fulfillment. Josie grows a spine, gets the guy, and delivers a great story, but after watching her flailing around for the other three quarters of the film, this sudden about-face seems phony. Josie doesn’t really undergo any tremendous changes or learn anything profound about herself. She’s only knocked out of her delusions when she sees history about to be repeated, with the victim now someone other than herself. Yes, she saves the day, and slaps down the popular kids in the process, but she still ends the movie declaring that those girls are the most beautiful people she’s ever met in her life. Instead of realizing that there was nothing wrong with being herself, she wins the acceptance of the popular kids who disdain the real her. Instead of realizing that she’s complete without a man, she ends the film trying to win back the love of a man who any smart woman would avoid like the plague. Even after being humiliated and emotionally tortured, Josie learns nothing, and if the plot and romances don’t bring you down, that certainly will.