The paradigm governing the teen film shifted profoundly at some point in the last decade. The bizarre, stupefying fantasy lands commonplace in the genre 15-20 years ago have been dismissed, with million-dollar mansions being less frequently commandeered by teenagers for their private parties. There also isn’t the same rigid hierarchy, where groups like the jocks continually subordinate others like the science geeks. No, the entire genre has evolved dramatically. But is that a good thing? Despite being hilariously dated, these films from the 1990s and early 2000s possess a powerful element of fanciful nostalgia, and there is nobody who perhaps personified this period better or with more vapid hunkiness than Freddie Prinze Junior (FPJ).
As anyone who was a teeny-bopper back in those days, the teen film began and ended with FPJ, something which can be attributed to his farm boy good looks and affable demeanor. The actor’s 1999 smash-hit She’s All That, co-starring the not-so-ugly-duckling Rachel Leigh Cook, represents this actor at the peak of his cinematic powers and the genre itself during its twilight hour. The film is difficult to absorb on any level above parody. It is simplistic, ephemeral and shot with marginal style. Despite this banality, She’s All That is still hard to completely write off.
There is nothing overly deserving of recognition here. The actors are all certainly capable enough. Freddie Prinze Jr. for example plays Zack Siler, a role he could do in his sleep. He’s little more than a likeable, beautiful dude struggling with some mild “coming of age” angst. His counterpart, Rachel Leigh Cook, plays an art chick named Laney Boggs. She is also perfectly adequate as a woman experiencing growing pains. Her character (the eponymous “She” from the title) has a bit more of a dynamic edge, as the role encapsulates both the worst and the best aspects of the production.
Cook’s Laney is portrayed as an impossibly unattractive girl who Zack bets his friend Dean Sampson (the late Paul Walker) that he can turn into the prom queen. Of course, there is a problem with this setup, as Cook trying to play unattractive is about as believable as Mickey Rooney playing the Mr. Yunioshi, Keanu Reeves playing Jonathan Harker or Michael Cera playing anything aside from Michael Cera; it just doesn’t work. The implausible nature of it is symbolic for the heightened feel of the entire production. This quality plays a huge role in establishing the film’s overall charm.
This charming, goofy and fantastical tone is conveyed in a multitude of ways. First, the various locations that the characters inhabit are ridiculous: huge, opulent mansions, tucked away in the Californian hills. Second the film contains a frankly laughable depiction of parental figures; the adults in this story have all the tangible reality of the “adult voices” in the Peanuts cartoons.
Finally, there is the culture of the film’s high school setting. The school has a hilarious, sitcom-like social structure. There are the clearly defined groups and an outrageously tangible caste system. Certain groups, such as the jocks which Siler runs with, seem to have the ability to completely control others. This ability appears powered solely by the sheer force of their social standing. In one jaw-dropping sequence, Prinze’s Siler even makes a couple of “bullies” eat a pizza that contains pubic hair. All of this is accomplished without any coercion or threat of physical violence. The bullies do it just because Siler is a “big man on campus,” or something.
This long-winded tangent about the surreal nature of the film was only meant to corroborate how Rachel Leigh Cook’s laughable “ugly duckling” status in the story enjoyably plays into the film’s implausible universe. That said, Cook’s Laney is also one of the detrimental factors. The interplay between Cook’s and Prince’s characters is uninteresting, emotionally uninvolving and flat-out inexplicable. Neither the script nor the direction of Robert Iscove (From Justin to Kelly) provide any real chemistry for the film’s central couple. This relegates the film into something that is devoid of heart, into something that can’t really be enjoyed except in the most ironic of senses. It is missing the power and the real, tangible emotions that drove something like the canon of John Hughes. Without this element we don’t really care about what is going on in any of these scenes.
Thankfully, the film still functions in a way that provides for a pleasant viewing experience. It is more of a cinematic time-capsule than a story, where one can point and exclaim, “There’s Usher Raymond!” (bizarrely playing the role of the school DJ) or shake their head in disbelief when, during a scene at the prom, everyone on the dance floor breaks into a choreographed routine. It’s a movie that is emblematic of a certain time and place, the Clinton era of teen cinema, where homogeneous love reigned, socio-economic realities were negated and geekdom was assured by donning a simple pair of glasses.