Despite her tabloid status as a former child star, recovering alcoholic, and whiplash bride and divorcée, Drew Barrymore, as an actress, erases her public image every time she’s onscreen. In Never Been Kissed, as fledgling newspaper reporter Josie Geller, she again gets the chance to play her ideal role— a wised-up young woman with a little girl’s wistful face. The setup for Josie’s transformation from mousy, pedantic copy editor to a revised version of her geeky high-school self is both familiar (Fast Times at Ridgemont High, the book, anyone?) and ridiculous (her Chicago daily happily bankrolls her months-long undercover project, plus an electronic surveillance team to keep an eye on her), but with Barrymore at center stage, the contrivance hardly matters. Determined to rewrite her humiliating high-school years, Josie tries to infiltrate the popular crowd, but only the school nerds (led by Leelee Sobieski) will accept her. Josie’s other champion is a distractingly handsome English teacher (Michael Vartan), who is delighted by her mature understanding of Shakespeare’s As You Like It. Josie, like Rosalind, has found her true love while in disguise.
So far, so good. But the movie becomes strictly formulaic when Josie, at the urging of her scandal-mongering editor, must dump her brainy pals in favor of the hard-partying in-crowd. By this time, her brother (David Arquette), a one-time high-school baseball star gone to seed, has joined her undercover, and embarks on a ludicrous gossip campaign to pump up Josie’s reputation. Though director Raja Gosnell seems to want to rush to the movie’s prom-night climax, Never Been Kissed is a lively tribute to the awkwardness and power of adolescent girlhood.
Less accomplished, but more obviously derived from a Shakespearean source, is 10 Things I Hate About You, a modern twist on The Taming of the Shrew. In yet another wildly privileged high school, where students drive fancy cars and chat about their Prada accessories, Katarina (Julia Stiles) is a proud, brash exception. She stalks around campus in fatigues and combat boots, shunning boys and the popular crowd, and turning every English-class discussion into a platform for her spirited feminist views. Her overprotective father has decreed that his popular younger daughter, Bianca, cannot date until Kat does. Naturally, this sets the stage for another one of those obvious, cruel bets that seem to occur only in movies about high school: Bianca’s suitor begs the school tough guy to consider Kat an adventure in “extreme dating.” Anyone who hates ’80s pop will find this movie awfully tiresome, but Stiles and her underage Petruchio (Australian actor Heath Ledger, as hunky as his name) are charismatic and bold enough to carry any romantic comedy. And that, plus one really funny joke about the Bard himself, is plenty.