When a young woman in high school frets about the folks in Mogadishu–when, for that matter, she can spell “Mogadishu”–American moviegoers know she needs a fashion makeover, a boyfriend and an eventful night at the prom. She’s All That fully meets these expectations for its heroine, and exceeds them in ways that make me fear for the picture’s tender viewers.
These are likely to be in the 12-to-20 range. The 12-year-olds look ahead to the dangers and opportunities they will soon taste in high school. The 20-year-olds, if bored at the mall, will consent to glance back at embarrassments only recently escaped. Yes, our children are our future (I think Bill Clinton said that); but the future looks grim indeed if the makers of She’s All That have guessed right about their audience. Not only does the girl who can spell “Mogadishu” go to the prom–now she even learns to care about being elected prom queen.
I call these matters to your attention because high school is America’s great engine of normalization. Children in all their variety get dumped into its hopper, undergo processing and come out at the other end packaged as socioeconomic types. Acting as a safety valve for this machinery is the high school movie, which (among its other functions) vents the steam that can build up in the raw material. All that normalization can make kids feel odd. Pretty soon, they need to spend money at the multiplex, to watch other odd-feeling kids make peace with the social order. That’s what worries me. How meager is the pressure that builds up nowadays, if it can be relieved by She’s All That!
The symbolic oddball here is one Laney Boggs, played by a young actress whose parents certainly couldn’t handle “Mogadishu,” to judge from what they did to her name. (It’s Rachael Leigh Cook.) But, to resume: Our Laney suffers from being the middle-class kid in a rich kids’ school. Of course, she’s not so deprived as to lack a swimming pool; but since her father cleans pools for a living, we understand that she dwells in relative misery–a state aggravated by the absence of her mother, who died many years ago. Apparently, single-parent households are rare in the more affluent neighborhoods of Southern California, so Laney feels like a freak. She therefore shuns all contact with other students and spends her time painting dark, brooding canvases, in which she merges her own agony with a cry of pain for the victims of planned famines, or the ocean life killed off by waste disposal at sea.
In short, Laney has ideas and ambitions beyond those that are conventional for a young woman of her time and place. These needs, which cannot be understood by others or even expressed to them, compel her to put aside party dresses (though she looks fetching in them) and disguise herself in mannish clothes. But then, while giving a performance at a local theater, she is accosted by Zack Siler, a brilliant and sociable young man with a long face and dark, narrow-set eyes–someone who has “winner” written all over him and yet seems vulnerable, someone who holds forth the prospect of a love she longs for, while knowing it to be impossible.
But now that I re-read the last paragraph, it suddenly occurs to me that I’ve summed up Shakespeare in Love.