From the first moment we see her raggedly shorn locks, punky wardrobe, and sense the carefree, brazenly sexual attitude behind it all, in “crazy/beautiful” it’s clear that Kirsten Dunst is no longer the little girl who first captured attention with her Golden Globe-nominated turn in 1994’s “Interview with the Vampire.” However, the most striking instance of growing up on display in John Stockwell’s film is that of the contemporary teen film.
Whereas most youth-aimed films are really about pushing a soundtrack and a “hot” young star’s image as they tell another tired tale revolving around who gets to go to the big dance with whom, Stockwell actually attempts to tell a character-driven story in “crazy/beautiful.” Granted, this story isn’t exactly anything new. Phil Hay and Matt Manfredi’s script centers around that old standby, a romance between two opposites. On one end is Carlos Nuñez (Jay Hernandez), a bright student from a rough L.A. neighborhood who takes a two-hour bus trip in each direction every day to attend the posh Pacific High. On the other is Nicole Oakley (Dunst), who lives in a large Pacific Palisades home with her Congressman father (Bruce Davison) and his cold new wife (Lucinda Jenney). The twist here is that the privileged white girl is the one with delinquent tendencies and substance abuse problems, and the ethnic guy from what would typically be “the wrong side of the tracks” is the ambitious and responsible type.
Naturally, a deep emotional trauma is at the root of Nicole’s frequent misbehavior, and through her developing relationship with Carlos (whom she meets cute on the beach as she does community service for a DUI charge) she is forced to face her personal demons. Along the way, Carlos himself also grows and develops into a more mature and independent person. All of this could easily be the fodder for an afterschool special, but Stockwell makes the material big screen-worthy by underplaying the melodrama. Unlike most teen films, the pitch is a lot more subdued and subtle, lending the picture a greater sense of reality.
But it’s hard to imagine Stockwell being able to create that air of authenticity without his stars. While her looks have changed with age, Dunst’s acting ability hasn’t. She once again demonstrates her versatility and depth with her nuanced portrayal of Nicole. Yes, the character is yet another one of those bad girls with a heart of gold, but where most actresses (let alone ones in her age range) can only nail one side or the other, Dunst is not only believable when either vixenish or vulnerable, she convinces that these are sides of the same person. Charismatic newcomer Hernandez is a find, managing to exude Carlos’ goodness without being a bore. The pair’s likability as individuals and their honest and unadorned chemistry while together effortlessly generate a rooting interest in their coupledom.
Given the formulaic through-line of its story right down to the neatly cathartic resolution, “crazy/beautiful” could certainly have used more of the first half of its title. But in a climate where teen-targeted entertainment is mostly concerned with attitude, the fact that this simple story manages to generate a number of moments falling under the latter quality alone makes the film worthwhile.