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Senior prom, revisited

By M.V. Moorhead

May 13, 2006

The school year has been winding down lately, and along the way the thoughts of many turned to senior prom, that event which invariably provides the social climax to the epic of the high school experience—in the movies, at least.

If you didn't have a prom date...well, first of all, my sympathies, but try not to let it get you down. If your prom actually did turn out to be the most exciting night you ever had, that means you won’t have led an exciting enough life.

And if it didn't turn out to be that big a deal in the grand scheme of things, then you haven’t missed out on much.

Besides, you could have always stayed home and watched movies. That’s better than slow-dancing under a glitter ball to an off-key cover of “Always and Forever” anyway, right?

And there was the usual abundance of appropriate movies to watch, starting with horror films like Carrie and Prom Night, in which you get to see the terrible things that can happen if you’re foolish enough to go to prom.

If, on the other hand, you like a lighthearted high school romance, remember that years before he started taking fishing trips to Brokeback Mountain, Heath Ledger fought for the heart of his prom date. In 10 Things I Hate About You, an ingenious retelling of Shakespeare’s Taming of the Shrew in teen-comedy dress, Ledger plays Patrick Verona, a high school bad boy who woos the beautiful and brilliant but short-fused Kat Stratford, played by Julia Stiles.

The twist is that Patrick’s a sort of hired gun of the heart. Kat’s father (Larry Miller), a gynecologist and obstetrician with a hysterical terror of teenage pregnancy, has forbidden his popular younger daughter Bianca (Larisa Oleynik) to date until Kat does so—he knows that Kat isn’t interested in dating.

So a loose alliance of boys, who are frantic to take Bianca out, pay Patrick a fee to tame Kate’s shrewish heart. The story, set in the Pacific Northwest, is played out in and around one of  the most beautiful buildings I’ve ever seen, a vast chateau-like structure towering over a stunning bay. Not many high schools in this country—or colleges, for that matter—can claim to be this expansive and picturesque.

Is it really a school? If so, the students there enjoy great good fortune over the average public-school kid, who spends four years in a setting usually little different from a minimum-security correctional facility.

This setting strains credibility a bit, but 10 Things I Hate About You isn’t concerned with realism anyway. It’s a cheerful, exaggerated fantasy of high-school life as it often appears to the kids going through it, with over-defined cliques, and wound-up teachers and counselors. Shakespeare’s plot, adhered to pretty closely in the first half, is jettisoned in the second half in favor of a standard teen-movie template, with revelations and comeuppances at the prom.

But the movie doesn’t skimp—in true Shakespearean fashion, we’re given plenty of characters and subplots, each with their own clever payoff. The dialogue is all facetious banter and sarcasm, but Ledger, Stiles, and the rest of the fine ensemble cast—which includes Joseph GordoniLevitt, David Krumholtz, Allison Janney and Daryl “Chill” Mitchell—make it charming. 10 Things is by no means a great work of film art, but it has an infectious generosity of spirit that makes it hold up to repeat viewings. It’s a fine specimen of that valuable cinematic category, the “comfort movie.”

The DVD: The DVD edition of 10 Things includes the movie’s trailer and a few other “recommendation” trailers, and that’s about it. As to family suitability, the PG-13 film is aimed at early teens and up, but it’s fairly frank (though never graphic) about teenage sexuality, and some parents may find it a smidge risqué.

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