There in La La-land
Kelley Morse (Chris Klein) is a familiar movie character, a prep school boy who has too much money and not enough attention from his father. For graduation, his insensitive dad (Stuart Wilson) is busy in London sealing some deal, so instead of coming to hear Kelley make his valedictorian’s speech, he sends him a superduper silver Mercedes. Determined not to seem hurt by this standard procedural slight, Kelley takes a couple of his rich buddies joyriding one night: they stop off at a local yokels’ diner, Kelley hits on the pretty young waitress, Sam (Leelee Sobieski), and her boyfriend-since-childhood Jasper (Josh Hartnett) picks a fight. One thing leads to another: the boys’ antics cause an accident, the diner burns down, and the troublemakers are sentenced to a summer’s worth of labor with the construction crew assigned to work on the diner.
There are two notable aspects of this sentencing. One, the judge who decides the boys need to “build” the diner so they might also “build” their characters, is a black woman; indeed, she’s the only black person in sight, in these upper New York State environs. And two, the courtroom is full of fathers and father-surrogates: Mr. Morris shows up to instruct the male family lawyer on cutting the legal deal and then dole out cash to his kid as he leaves to conduct more family business overseas; Jasper’s father is the construction company chief, Michael Arnold (Michael Rooker); and Sam’s father is the town sheriff, Earl Cavanaugh (Bruce Greenwood). All these manly men must abide by the judge’s decision, no matter how much they roll their eyes or look off to the ground. Corny and inadvertently instructive, the moment sets up the film’s generally retro gender breakdown: men do and women, ostensibly unable to do but wiser and more sensitive than men, tell them what to do.
Such backwards thinking is this film’s major failing: it will likely lose you within minutes, because its social themes are so transparent and its moral positions so simplistic. It takes as its model the so-called “old-fashioned” love story, quite literally in fact. The preppy boy and working class girl college romance made so tediously famous by Love Story is here reconfigured for high school students (lamentably, it’s probably not such a stretch to see Erich Segal’s cheeseball novel and Arthur Hiller’s 1970 film adaptation as “classic” source material, like Shakespeare and Jane Austen). Once the romantic triangle is established or rather, the romantic duo, as Jasper can’t help but fall by the wayside Here on Earth doesn’t waste much time transmitting its coming tragedy: out of the blue, Sam’s doctor calls to confirm her appointment, and not one character explains what it’s about. This silence, of course, can only symbolize one thing.
These days, high school romances tend to be comedic, so you might consider this dramatic turn vaguely offbeat, even “daring” (this would be the general line being pushed by the filmmakers especially the actors in recent promotional interviews). But such consideration would mean forgetting just how tradition-bound and profoundly undaring the drama in the film actually is. Sam has admirable sand and Kelley has to get over his mom’s suicide (he’s only mean because he’s suffered, which means he’s not really mean) and Jasper, he just has to grin and bear it, because, despite his initial jealousy and hard-headedness, at heart he’s just a country boy, decent and generous in the ways that he must be in order to complete this sentimental circuit, to teach his city cousin by his example.
All of these players are, of course, appealing (these days, you can’t really be a teen or teen-seeming star without being beautiful and seeming like you’re amiable). But here they’re less contemporary than throwbackish, framed and costumed to resemble their precursors, those pre-anti-hero movie stars, who always looked glamorous and perfect. Sobieski is actually stunningly adept at this, despite looking briefly scandalous in Eyes Wide Shut. In Deep Impact, she was the ideal child bride, and really, how many 17-year-olds can you think of who could have pulled off Joan of Arc, on television no less? As Sam, Sobieski is incessantly lit from behind so that she glows as if haloed, and she tends to swallow her dialogue, as if choking on the words, uh, her emotions, because they’re so, uh, deep. This was the way they did it in the olden days, making meaning out of air and light and words that sometimes hardly seemed speakable.
In fact, the awkwardness of the words in Michael Seitzman’s script is the one thing it does well. Whereas in a lot of trendy teen texts Dawson’s Creek, the Screams, Buffy, 10 Things I Hate About You the kids talk and talk and talk, so earnest about what they say and what they mean to say and how they might better say it, in this film no one talks much at all, except a few blabby adults. The kids stumble over their language and their ideas. Sam is so confused that she’s attracted to Kelley while she knows she loves Jasper, that she’s several times reduced to gazing at her shoes and saying only, “I don’t know.” This helps to stake the plot point that she doesn’t talk about her illness, but it also helps to make her sound like a regular kid (granted, one who has memorized Robert Frost’s “The Birches,” but you might not hold that against her, as it’s so obviously a device, and a lousy one at that).
The boys are slightly more articulate, but that’s because they have to strut their guy stuff, explain to one another how pissed off they are and make threats and jibes about each other’s mothers. Unfortunately (because Hartnett is a treat to watch, a very subtle, unclassic actor), Jasper gets ousted from the action a little too soon (except when he makes miraculously timed appearances at busstops and windows, in the rain, so he can look bereft and you can see how Sam’s youthful fearfulness and indecision are causing him anguish). And so you must be content watching Kelley’s transition from full-on asshole to adequately self-conscious high school senior. The major sign of this change comes when he feels badly that he’s murdered Jasper’s little sister’s favorite mouse (the one who lives in the over-the-garage room he’s renting for the summer), and goes off to buy her a new one, complete with colorful spinning wheel and teeny aquarium to keep on her desk. You see he misses the point here: the first mouse was not stuck in a cage and had nothing to do with having and being able to spend money, but hey, it’s an effort.
The big and most embarrassing breakthrough comes on the night of the Big Dance down at the Fairgrounds (these country folks, they’re so quaint, and the whole town is invited). Kelley knows Sam has gone to the dance with Jasper, even after she and Kelley have had sex one day in the sun-dappled field. Why? Well, you know, she “doesn’t know.” Kelley gathers up his courage by drinking a few brewskies and having his own hoedown out in the barn with the cows, whose silence he takes a advice that he should head on down to the dance. There’s a confrontation, another destruction of property (a drum kit), and eventually, decisions will be made and truths will out.
It’s ironic and fitting, if you think about it, that the plot in this teen romance is really the problem, and the gawky silences and unpolished behaviors are the most engaging moments. It’s too bad, though, that these are so few and far between. This is a film about set in a bucolic la-la-land, as misconceived by folks from way out in the other, more famous La-La-Land.