Tart‘s distributors might well be aware that the film has little going for it. I’m drawing this conclusion based on the straight-to-video film’s exploitative box art; a cheeky Dominique Swain wears a preppy school uniform, the back of which is blowing in the wind revealing her white panties. Given its title and this titillating image, Tart looks like your average teen sex yarn. The assumption is dead-on. Except for the “sex” part.
Tart is another in a long line of unoriginal attempts to explore one girl’s desire to fit in. The film presents itself as a modern day, gender-switched Great Expectations, but fails to create anything approximating the tension of the Dickens tale or grant its characters any sense of charm or whimsy.
Cat (Swain) is a 16-year-old student at an upper-class New York City private school, whose only friend is the rambunctious Delilah (Bijou Phillips). Delilah’s into sex and drugs and has just the right kind of smart mouth to keep her feeling tougher than the stuck up snobs also attending the school. When Delilah’s behaviour gets her expelled, Cat ends up hanging with the snobby crowd her friend warned her about. Now she finds herself welcome at ritzy parties and is finally getting noticed by the dreamy-but-dangerous William (Brad Renfro). Cat soon learns, however, that life Park Avenue-style is not all it’s cracked up to be. She gains little from her new friends, not knowing just who she is supposed to be — poor and stuck-up or rich and nice? Is it possible to be either? Or both? Oh, help!
This all seems simple enough, at first, until we learn that William is actually from the “wrong side of the tracks,” supporting a drug habit by stealing from the homes of his friends and fencing the goods to creepy Kenny (a bizarre appearance from Kids in the Hall member Scott Thompson), who also pimps him out to older men. He’s got a girlfriend, too, who never really has her say about his cheating with Cat.
Also, Delilah’s mother is having an affair with Eloise’s (Lacey Chabert) father, while Cat’s own father has almost nothing to do with her seemingly only in the picture to give her money and forget her birthday. Add to all of this Cat’s hypochondriac little brother, Peter (Myles Jeffrey), her alienation from her mother Lily (Alberta Watson) and one-time confidante Delilah, Cat’s shame at being Jewish, Delilah’s alienation because she’s Jewish, William’s eventual murder of Delilah, and a grating faux-British accent from Mischa Barton (as rich-girl, Grace), and you’ve got one hell of a mess on your hands.
Even with so much going on, Tart remains dull, never developing any one of its numerous storylines for any length of time. Characters cross paths so often during the film’s 92 minutes that their names become difficult to remember, as do their relationships to each other. And the central players are the least involving of the lot. Cat communicates in monotone, never becoming excited about anything, which makes it hard to figure out if she is ever getting what she wants (or if she knows). Her supposed beau, William, is reprehensible (he prepares to throw her down a garbage chute, when he thinks she’s just ODed), coming off as nothing but a degenerate junkie who deserves what he gets at the film’s conclusion.
The only characters at all intriguing are Delilah (thanks to yet another fearless performance from Phillips) and Chabert’s Eloise. In fact, I spent much of the film wishing these two would hook up and ride cross country in a big old Cadillac with the top down. Writer-director Christina Wayne exhibits little sense of pace and structure, and even less of character development: the kids drink and take drugs repeatedly, their conversation is trite, and their interactions show no sign as to why any of them are even friends, except perhaps to achieve “status,” which doesn’t make much sense, once we learn William is lower on the class ladder than Cat, and Delilah is higher on it than the Park Avenue girls.
This tangle of storylines is long on contradiction and short on explanation. Why is Cat so bent on being accepted by snotty people who aren’t so rich, instead of hanging with members of her own crowd, who are? Her objects of desire are small-minded and gross, finding drama in odd places, as when Delilah shits in a pot and hands it to the rich girls at the prestigious Gold and Silver Ball. Other weirdness crops up, including an awkward appearance by Melanie Griffith, who comments on Cat’s new “boobies” and promptly leaves, never to resurface; and Delilah teaching her dog to go down on her. Tart brings no freshness to its well-worn premise, only repeating that there is no place for you among young rich Park Avenue suburbanites if you’re poor or Jewish, that friends are expendable, and all a girl really needs is her mother. Oh, and not to expect too much from a panty flash.