Much ado about dating

It's The Taming of the Shrew set in a high school. But it's far from clueless, writes Peter Bradshaw

Can it really be true that high school teen comedy is emerging as one of the freshest and most literate genres in American cinema? I sat down to 10 Things I Hate About You ready to groan and to patronise. The set-up is that Katharine "Kat" Stratford (Julia Stiles) is a clever, pretty, but gloweringly unpopular 18-year-old at Padua High School in Seattle. Kat is, like, a total bitch. Her simpering 16-year-old sister Bianca (Larisa Oleynik) is keen to date boys, but her strict dad says she can't - until Kat does. So guys who wish to go out with her have somehow to fix up the ferociously undatable Kat before they get to smooch with Bianca.

It's the smartest, funniest and most likeable film of the week and is, moreover, in the most charming and unselfconscious manner possible, a homage to William Shakespeare. There are naturally lots of clues in the place names, and the plot is loosely based on The Taming of the Shrew, with a generous pinch of Much Ado About Nothing.

Padua High's mise-en-scène is familiar from Alicia Silverstone's exquisite Clueless: a new guy, Cameron (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), is introduced to the school's various preposterous cliques and in-crowds: the White Rastas who wear locks, say "mon" and think they're black; the nerdish future MBAs; and the cowboys who drive 4X4s. Cameron's mentor is the nervy, Woody Allen-ish Michael (David Krumholtz), who is obsessed with a girl called Mandella, a William Shakespeare nut. When Michael sees the picture of Shakespeare in Mandella's locker, he points, nonplussed, to the Elizabethan ruff around the Bard's neck and asks: "Is that to stop him licking his stitches?" It got a roof-raising laugh at the screening I attended.

Clueless was taken from Jane Austen, Cruel Intentions from Les Liaisons Dangereuses. Where is this fashion for teenage literary makeover coming from? Partly, I think, from the continuing slow-burning success in America, in video-store rental form, of Baz Luhrmann's Romeo and Juliet, starring cult teenage idols Leonardo DiCaprio and Claire Danes, which was a refreshing, viscerally powerful reworking of Shakespeare's mawkish early tragedy.

Danes herself was the star of the teen-angst TV drama My So-Called Life, a mod ern classic of American television, in which she starred opposite the exquisitely handsome Jared Leto - said in this film to be a secret pin-up of Kat's. And there are a couple of scenes which are clearly taken from this hugely popular television series, particularly a scene in the English class where the bored, disaffected kids gradually become interested in the Shakespeare sonnet they have been set as an assignment.

In 10 Things, Kat and her schoolmates have to discuss Sonnet 141 ("In faith I do not love thee with my eyes/For they in thee a thousand errors note"), then rewrite the poem in modern English, but in iambic pentameters. By the end of the film, Kat has completed her effort, an impassioned rap about the boy she has been tricked into falling in love with: the 10 things she hates about him.

We have all been accustomed to thinking of "dumbing down" and "modern commercial American cinema" as one and the same, and many is the time we have railed against the juvenilisation of the cinema fostered in the US. But 10 Things runs counter to this preconception: it actually shows young people reading books, knowing about books - by Sylvia Plath and Betty Friedan. Why aren't we Brits making intelligent, bookish movies for young audiences? Why aren't we, with our Mount Kilimanjaro of lottery cash and mighty cultural heritage, making this sort of thing? Why is it we can only come up with Virtual Sexuality (a commercially produced film), which talks down to its teenage audiences, while movies like 10 Things, Cruel Intentions or Clueless - films expected to make their way in the marketplace - pay their youthful target audience the compliment of being at least potentially bright enough to understand literary references?

10 Things is a bright little romantic comedy, nicely and sharply written, which wears its learning winningly and lightly.

The GuardianTramp

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