Though it vaguely resembles Wild Things and even The Talented Mr. Ripley, New Best Friend is actually a terribly written WB-quality after-school special disguised as a teen thriller. As in those far superior films, class conflict is cast here as the tension between the rich, “popular” clique and a working-class kid who desperately wants to be among their ranks.
Set in South Carolina at the fictitious “Colby University,” New Best Friend centers on Alicia (Mia Kirschner), the painfully earnest nerd whose ambition to get into law school is surpassed only by her desire to get in with the popular crowd. Said popular crowd, embodied by ice queen Hadley (Meredith Monroe), sexually liberated Sidney (Dominique Swain), and lollipop-lovin’ Julianne (Rachel True), seems to have everything — money, expensive cars, hot boyfriends, and endless supplies of drugs and booze. Hadley is the unofficial leader of this crowd, with the hottest boyfriend, Trevor (Scott Bairstow) and the richest daddy.
When Hadley and Alicia are randomly paired up in class for a sociology project, Hadley and her high-class pals take the poor, naïve Alicia under their Prada-clad wings, only to realize too late that they’ve opened up a Pandora’s box. Alicia finds a sense of freedom and self-esteem in her new friends’ party scene and starts to lose control. Suddenly, it’s not enough to be accepted by the “in” crowd; Alicia starts going after Hadley’s boyfriend and then, her money. When she snorts a few too many ounces of coke at Hadley’s house and ends up in a coma, the university calls in Sheriff Artie Bonner (Taye Diggs) to placate Alicia’s mom, who maintains that Hadley is responsible for Alicia’s overdose.
The good sheriff, whose only “uniform” is a fake-looking star on his lapel, conducts one of the lamest investigations ever captured on celluloid. After looking over the “crime scene” for about 30 seconds, he says to Hadley and friends, “Thanks girls, I’ll be in touch.” Once he finds out that Alicia overdosed on “pharmaceutical quality cocaine,” Artie goes to visit the local drug dealer, who smiles condescendingly and informs him that most street drugs, including his own stash, are less than pure.
These bare bones of Victoria Strouse’s screenplay may not sound funny, but it is, in fact, full of comedic possibilities. Alicia sucks up to Hadley and the other rich chicks using one awkward compliment after another (“You’re a smart and beautiful girl”); and Sheriff Bonner, who spends his screen-time putting the audience to sleep with his hypnotic monotone, muses philosophically in a voiceover at film’s end, about how the graduating seniors of Colby University “came in search of truth and knowledge.” As I say, comedic.
Strouse and director Zoe Clarke-Williams could definitely have gotten more mileage out of Dominique Swain’s character Sidney, a bisexual, carefree party girl, who practically melts the screen whenever she got to say one of her few and far-between lines. Trust Dominique Swain to pick a role that would allow her to get kinky with other girls. She revisits her title role in Adrian Lyne’s Lolita (1997), here slightly twisted into a horny sorority coed, getting it on with both Alicia and Julianne.
Although, it’s initially tempting to identify and even sympathize with Alicia because of her clearly marked status as the financial and social “underdog,” the film turns that identification back on itself by revealing Alicia to be the real “bad” girl, making Hadley’s own criminal actions less reprehensible and almost self-protective. After all, the film suggests, Alicia is trying to drive Hadley crazy, with her smarmy speeches while scheming to get Hadley’s father to pay for her own law school tuition. What else could Hadley do but spike the new girl’s coke?
In the end, this class conflict (most blatantly revealed when Hadley calls Alicia “trailer trash” and Alicia calls her a “poor little rich girl”) is as mundane as the dialogue. American cinema’s rich kids always have the rowdiest parties, the wildest sex, and the least amount of homework, and always have Daddy and Mommy to bail them out. Poor people shouldn’t even try to get inside, because they are not used to “balancing,” as Hadley puts it. Though many films have made this formula relatively interesting — I’m thinking of The Talented Mr. Ripley or even Pretty in Pink — for whatever reasons, New Best Friend doesn’t even try.