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10 THINGS I HATE ABOUT YOU

by: Scott Renshaw

It seems like only a few weeks ago -- probably because it was -- that I was inveighing against the slew of "fill-in-the-blank, but with teenagers" movies. Still they show no sign of abating, with a shudder-inducing sub-category creeping to the forefront: Shakespeare, but with teenagers. Leading the charge (which will include a version of OTHELLO later this year) is 10 THINGS I HATE ABOUT YOU, the under-20 set's "Taming of the Shrew." By all rights it should have been as incredibly heinous as other recent juvenile jaunts, but it's actually kinda cute on occasion. Though still too concerned with cozying up to its audience's sensibilities, 10 THINGS at least offers a blueprint for how to make such material a bit more appealing.

The setting is modern-day Padua High School of Seattle, where a cunning plan is about to unfold. New student Cameron James (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) has become infatuated with beautiful, popular Bianca Stratford (Larisa Oleynik), but he's thwarted by more than clashing cliques. Bianca's overprotective father (Larry Miller) has forbidden her from dating until older sister Kat (Julia Stiles) does likewise, and Kat is known as an ill-tempered girl with no interest in ordinary teen pursuits like dating. Cameron comes up with the creative solution of finding someone to woo Kat, someone like mysterious loner Patrick Verona (Heath Ledger). Naturally the hard-edged Kat proves a tough shrew to tame, until both prospective lovers begin to let their guard down.

10 THINGS gets a leg up on most of its genre cousins simply by putting people on the screen who can act a lick. Julia Stiles is a charming, smart and fresh presence as Kat, giving here attitude a little something more than just attitude; Australian actor Heath Ledger makes for a nice foil with his combination of hulking presence and sensitivity; and David Krumholtz has a solid comic relief role as Cameron's nerdy comrade. The adult roles are also satisfying for a change, primarily because they aren't used simply as walls off of which teens can bounce insults. While Larry Miller obsesses as the Stratford' girls' teen pregnancy-obsessed papa, Daryl "Chill" Mitchell gets a few funny scenes as an angry English teacher and Allison Janney composes explicit romance novels as guidance counselor Ms. Perky. I actually found myself chuckling at most of these characters instead of wishing desperately that they'd just go away.

Much of the credit for that should also go to writers Karen McCullah Lutz and Kirsten Smith, who give the dialogue a bite that goes beyond insult humor and high school patois. Some of the best lines are unprintable -- including Patrick's curiosity over why Bianca is so desirable -- but they all seem to have been given at least a little thought. While the situations are teen-film predictable -- a party scene, a prom scene, plenty of threats and posturing -- occasionally the writing emerges to deliver an unexpected laugh. It's not brilliant, but it's a sharp step up from stupid.

As likeable as parts of 10 THINGS aare, it's hard to get overly enthusiastic about it. Veteran sit-com director Gil Junger, making his feature debut, slaps on a generous coat of sit-com glossiness, leaving little room for the truly acidic wordplay of a "Taming of the Shrew." It's a warm and fuzzy sort of teen film with some welcome positive messages about independent thought and valuing depth of character, yet it still rarely rises above the level of the blandly generic. It might have had a chance if so many sub-plots hadn't been packed into a tight 94-minute package, short-changing them all with shallowness. Still, it's enough of a surprise to find a teen film that doesn't overstay its welcome instantly, let alone deserves more fleshing out. It's enough to give you hope that there's actually a good movie to be made in 1999 "...with teenagers."

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