Star-Bulletin Features

Friday, June 29, 2001

Splendid acting from Kirsten Dunst as Nicole and Jay
Hernandez as Carlos is what makes "crazy/beautiful" work.

Powerful acting, moods
elevate tale of teen love

Nothing blows up in 'crazy/beautiful,'
a gritty city saga that confounds
expectations but rings true

By Burl Burlingame

You're perfectly welcome to hate "crazy/beautiful," and many will -- just on basic principles and apparent surface values. It's not easy to take, although it's marketed as summer-programmer fodder. It's not simple, although the plot can be summed up in a centuries-old blurb: Teens from different sides of town fall desperately in love, with tragic results. It's not dazzling to look at, although the juiced-up sensibilities that produce frantic schlock like "Pearl Harbor" should study this movie to see how to tell a story elegantly with celluloid. It's not easily niched, treating all of its characters -- young and old-- with both compassion and cool, near-anthropological observation.

Every character in "crazy/beautiful," even minor ones set up as plot-moving stereotypes, will surprise you before the movie's over. Imagine, rounded human beings on the screen, and nothing blows up. Is this a summer movie?

In a season in which people go to movies to be comforted, not challenged, "crazy/beautiful" qualifies as both radical and retro. Some viewers will feel let down because the movie will confound their preformed expectations. Others will be delighted by this tough little story.

At first it sounds like the stuff of a million afternoon specials. Nicole, willful, self-destructive, rich, grudgingly artistic, emotionally dangerous to all around her, sets her sights on Carlos, a grimly serious barrio kid who's determined to escape and studies hard for the things Nicole takes for granted. The flirtation becomes serious when both awaken hidden depths in the other, and they're headlong into the crush of first love. There are dramatic consequences, of course, and everyone eventually comes to terms with their feelings.

Yawn. Movies like this are pretty thick on the ground, about self-absorbed teens who "grow" by becoming obsessed with other teens exactly like them. That's the plot of most teen-love movies, actually. Snore.

What makes "crazy/beautiful" special is that none of this is presented as salvation, or as a goofy fling, but as a series of life choices that can have painful consequences, but we're obligated to make them, because, frankly, that's how real life works. Falling in love is a growth process because it requires acceptance and trust.

Director John Stockwell -- himself a veteran actor in many bad movies about teenagers -- tells the story in a straightforward style that doesn't call attention to itself, although it works brilliantly at conveying mood and detail. You're worried when the kids drive under the influence, in cars that seem clunky and barely controllable. The interior of the spacious rich homes seem as claustrophobic as any barrio rental. The sun that beats down on L.A. appears as brownly poisonous as nicotine. The racial cultures in the city interact in the DMZ of public transport, school and shopping malls; when one person is inserted into the world of the other, their entire posture and being changes to that of a wary, defensive animal.

I love the unexplained detail of muddy footprints at the edge of the bed in Nicole's trashed-out room. Here's a troubled kid who's clearly been out too many late nights and yet is so fiercely protective of her "space" that she'd rather live in squalor, albeit inside a mansion.

What makes the film work is the splendid acting, particularly by Kirsten Dunst as Nicole and Jay Hernandez as Carlos. The teens in "crazy/beautiful" are both lumpy and budding, lunking about like draft horses and touchy as butterflies, seemingly half-formed in the mold. Watch Hernandez's face freeze up in self-loathing as he's caught telling a lie, apparently the first one he's ever told. Dunst, who's becoming rather Lisa Eichhorn-like as she grows up, is simultaneously repellent and darling as a kid cracking under a heavy psychic load. She's absolutely heartbreaking.

But even tiny parts sing in the script by Phil Hay and Matt Manfredi. Even the cliched evil stepmother turns out to be both honest and legitimately frightened, to the point where she seems like the only rational person in the movie.

You also wish Nicole would wash her hair, for chrissakes. When she does, watch for it -- it's almost subliminal -- because it's a clue that the character is changing and growing. The fact that you're relieved because a character discovers shampoo shows how much she's gotten under your skin.


Consolidated Kapolei, Koko Marina, Ko'olau, Mililani, Pearlridge & Ward; Signature Dole Cannery, Pearl Highlands & Windward
4 stars

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