Rock and a Hard Place
Poor little rich girl Nicole Oakley (Kirsten Dunst) hates her life. She drinks too much and drives too fast, skips her classes and snipes at her blow-dried Congressman dad’s (Bruce Davison) pro-environmental and anti-racist posturings, takes antidepressants and wears cute little midriff tops. Worse, she’s trapped inside a formulaic teen-romance script. And yet, against these odds, she occasionally emerges as a vibrant, appealing character.
From the start of John Stockwell’s crazy/beautiful, Nicole is set up to be both typical and freaky, the kind of adolescent girl you’ve seen in a million other high school and/or “crazy white girl” movies: Mad Love, Girl, Interrupted, 12 Things I Hate About You, and yes, Save the Last Dance all leap immediately to mind. Her arty, unposed snapshot-collages fill the screen while her voice-over lays out the film’s premise: “You could be anywhere when your life begins . . . .” Hers, apparently, begins in the next few instants we see on screen, as she’s picking up trash on the beach in Pacific Palisades, California, doing duty (we learn later) for a DUI charge. She catches the eye of Carlos Nunez (Jay Hernandez, of NBC’s Hang Time and MTV’s Undressed), a straight-arrow honor student who rides the bus for two hours each morning in order to go to Nicole’s high school, where he’s a star football player and aspiring naval pilot. He’s polite and ambitious, she’s ornery and self-destructive. Obviously, they’re made for each other.
Kirsten Dunst, Jay Hernandez, Bruce Davison, Lucinda Jenney, Taryn Manning, Rolando Molina
Their love, however, must face a series of Romeo and Julietish obstacles, most of which are founded in their manifest race and class differences. Though she knows that her dad will be happy that his daughter has a “person of color” in her bed, his Spanish-only-speaking mother (who apparently spends all her time in the kitchen, fixing heaping plates for her boys) sees Nicole as a self-serving distraction and threat to her son’s future. In a slight twist, Nicole’s father also sees her as the problem, and, in the same breath that he offers to write Carlos a recommendation to the Naval Academy, warns him to “stay away from her.” Pure-hearted Carlos, mystified and impressed that even her dad thinks she’s too loony and dangerous to be around, briefly takes the advice, but soon realizes that true love is more important than her past offenses.
If Carlos is understandably tentative, Nicole handles their mutual attraction in an adorably headlong way. She drags her best friend Maddy (Taryn Manning) along with her to a football game so she can watch Carlos play (“Omigod! You’re so obvious,” giggles the ever-supportive Maddy, “Slut!”), and then the two girls—“wasted,” as Nicole confesses later—offer to drive him home. After some endearingly “wild” displays (the girls sing along to the radio and wheel-screech on the freeway), they reach Carlos’s neighborhood. Stopping for tacos at a joint near his home, the girls dance provocatively for an appreciative audience and take in the “local color,” before Carlos and Nicole share their first kiss, leaning against an alley wall while Maddy relieves herself, off in the shadows. The girls are fearless in the way that privileged 17-year-olds can be. When Carlos’s brother Hector (Rolando Molina) and some friends wonder aloud at his good fortune, Nicole steps right up with just the right mix of nerve and charm: “You get assigned a white girl when you go to Pacific.”
While its intentions are patently good, the film is at times overwhelmed by hackneyed dramatic conveniences: he has a stagey run-in with his suddenly clueless white football buddies, who ride him for coming around their neighborhood (“This isn’t Browntown!”) and she has a wicked stepmother, pert blond Courtney (Lucinda Jenney), uptight mother of Nicole’s infant stepsister, resentful that Nicole’s dad spends any time with her at all, and burdened with terrible dialogue (“What kind of daughter are you!?”). Their inevitable montagey sequences are especially trite—they play on the beach (she buries him to his neck in the sand), go soaring in a private jet (his first ever plane ride, her treat), and spend time in the gym (she sits on his lap and takes photos of him weight-training).
Alongside this foolishness is the fact that the script (by Phil Hay and Matt Manfredi) never addresses some obvious questions (why is it significant that the military looks like an only option for Carlos? or, why is drinking Nicole’s preferred mode of vengeance against the world?). Likely, much of crazy/beautiful‘s incoherence has to do with director Stockwell’s fight with Disney (parent company to Touchstone), over the film’s content, following the FTC announcement last September that Hollywood was marketing violence to children. According to Newsweek, Disney demanded that Stockwell trim, refilm, or cut scenes featuring violence, sex, all of Nicole’s drug abuse, and “obscenities” (the magic number to cut was 35). It’s not a little ironic that the film’s original point was to show the consequences and causes of kids’ bad behavior and irresponsibility. Stockwell tells Newsweek, “We were trying to make a cautionary tale, and we couldn’t show the behavior we were trying to caution people away from.”
At the same time, it’s worth noting the limits of crazy/beautiful‘s basic romance formulation, on which the FTC would have had little impact. Much like the recent super-surprise hit, Save the Last Dance, this movie is behind the times (that is, the experiences of its young target audience), only able to conceive of an interracial couple within specific character constraints, namely, the troubled white girl and the saintly boyfriend of color. For Carlos to be “acceptable,” Nicole needs to be rescued and he needs to be perfect. If it’s not precisely unrealistic as a life situation, as an image, it originates between a rock and a hard place, given the ways that such pairings have been represented in the past. And while it’s not surprising that the current way out is more conservative than complicated, it’s also revealing of how slowly stereotypes and expectations are changing.
We all know how critical it is to keep independent voices alive and strong online. Please consider a donation to support our work as an independent publisher devoted to the arts and humanities. Your donation will help PopMatters stay viable through these changing and challenging times where advertising no longer covers our costs. We need your help to keep PopMatters publishing. Thank you.