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Saturday, June 12, 1999

Once more please, and from the top

For me, American high school movies have exactly the same effect as American movies -- the ones about floods, avalanches, being trapped inside airplanes thathave just been hijacked by ex-KGB terrorists. The sweat begins to pour, heart action goes nuts, and though every fiber of my being calls out with sympathy for the screaming, writhing characters, the real words in my heart are: "Better you than me, pal!"

Just as "Cliffhanger" taught me to stay away from icy precipices with nothing but a frazzled rope across them, American high school movies drummed into me that to go there is to walk into a vat of plague. At least I don't have to. It's the 13- and 14-year-olds I feel sorry for, with those three years looming on the horizon, and exposed to all these images that say one must be cooler than the waiters at the Beverly Hills Polo Lounge or die.

This is basically what the undercurrent of paranoia running through most high school movies amounts to leading me to suspect two things: Either the filmmakers had a god-awful teen experience and this is their vengeance, or the filmmakers had a god-awful teen experience and this is their way of warning the coming generation.

I'm not sure which category applies to director Raja Gosnell, who helmed "Never Been Kissed," but he is a man who knows how to turn on the panic without balking for a single second. How to cause collective, massive attacks of goose bumps. In fact, the weak of heart will do better to stay away altogether. "Never Been Kissed" is a nightmare, like dying and then being forced to watch a slide show of all the stupid things you did in high school while a panel of angels nod sagely behind you and say: "You think that was bad, get ready for this!" Talk about paranoid, "Never Been Kissed" rests on the premise that anyone who failed the High School Experience is branded for life and the only way to redemption is to do it over again.

Drew Barrymore stars as Josie, copy editor at a Chicago newspaper, who is a stickler for good grammar and a wiz at needlepoint. She makes good story pitches to her boss Gus (John C. Reilly), but he thinks Josie just doesn't have what it takes for investigative research. Until a chance for undercover reporting in a local high school lands in her lap and she gets the first break in her career. This assignment calls for the 25-year-old Josie to masquerade as a high-teen cutie, which proves to be a daunting task. Never having been a cutie in her life, Josie simply doesn't know where to begin.

No wonder, as we learn via frequent flashbacks of Josie's own high school days, which consisted of bad clothes, bad hair, braces and the nickname: "Josie Grossie." These memory flashes are inevitably followed by vomit sessions and it becomes clear that to get on with her life, she must first exorcise the ghosts. And what better way than to reinvent herself as a cool, desirable, "with it" teenager, who smokes hash and dances all night? Josie tries mightily -- in an assortment of gaudy outfits and high white boots -- but none of it really flies until her 23-year-old brother Rob (David Arquette) offers to help.

Rob is the other extreme, the eternal King of the Prom who, once he graduates, doesn't know where to go. He too wants to redo his teen years, but just to recapture what it was like to shine. Rob succeeds splendidly and pulls up Josie in the wake of his glory. By the time the predictably climactic prom rolls around, Josie has amassed enough approval votes to win a date with Guy (Jeremy Jordan), the school's Dream Guy.

In the meantime, before and after, Josie's escapades will make you blush and recall the words of Disraeli: "Youth is a blunder." The same applies to Guy and Co., caricatures of Hip Adolescence to the extent that watching them becomes sheer agony. To think that we once bent over backward and more to impress such people. To think that some of us go through life regretting that we never impressed such people.

And the prom thing. Toujours the prom thing. Eighty percent of high school angst could be wiped out if only American high schools would abolish proms and Hollywood stopped making movies about them.

But then half the joy of movie-going would be slashed. And there's no doubt, if you can't reinvent your teens, then at least some movie character is out there doing it for you. Drew Barrymore, no less. Fresh-faced, smiling and exuding adorability from every pore.

By the end of the film you're ready to forgive everything. To be a grown-up and bury the hachet. Still, I didn't have the courage to go home and open my yearbook.

"Never Been Kissed" opens today at Miyukiza in Hibiya and other theaters.

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