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Weekly Alibi Those Awkward Teen Years

By Noah Masterson

JUNE 22, 1998:  Every decade has its coming-of-age movies. The '70s had The Last Picture Show and Over the Edge, among others. John Hughes dominated the '80s with The Breakfast Club, Sixteen Candles and Pretty in Pink, with Cameron Crowe close on his heels with Fast Times at Ridgemont High and Say Anything. The '90s, however, have been surprisingly bereft of decent teen flicks. Dazed and Confused (1993) wasn't even about the generation it was targeting and wasn't all that good. Clueless (1995) was a fair comedy, but it's simple message of "be true to one's self" was really what was laughable. Perhaps the reason for the absence of movies that truly define the '90s is that today's generation of youth is so difficult to pin down.

This decade, pop culture has pushed forward at such hyperspeed that nothing can be summarily defined as "nineties." In the past eight years, we've mined the cultures of the '60s (to refresh your memory, tie dyes were still popular in 1991, not to mention the fact that Austin Powers came out just last year), '70s and '80s (no refresher courses necessary). But it is only recently that these nuggets of stolen culture have begun to fit comfortably with each other and, finally, someone has made a movie about it.

Can't Hardly Wait is about a party--the final, end-of-the-year graduation party that everyone knows about and that members of all social strata will attend. The jocks have a pre-party huddle over beers; the nerds plan revenge on the jocks; the hip-hop honkies prepare to get laid, and the slackers waffle over whether to go to the damn party at all.

At the center of it all is Amanda (Jennifer Love Hewitt), the popular prom queen who just got dumped by her jock boyfriend Mike (Peter Fancinelli). Word of their breakup has spread, and sensitive-guy Preston (Ethan Embry), who's harbored a four-year crush on Amanda, figures this will be his one chance to tell her how he feels. Armed with a love letter that he's rewritten dozens of times since their first encounter, he goes to the party, dragging along his best friend Denise (Lauren Ambrose) for moral support.

Once the party begins, the audience is transported. We become fellow minglers, bouncing from group to group, eavesdropping on conversations. This is an ensemble picture and, even with the central storyline of Preston hankering for Amanda, each subplot takes on nearly equal importance.

While Preston embarks on his quest, Denise gets locked in the bathroom with Kenny (Seth Green), a guy who was her childhood playmate but ignored her all through junior high and high school. The two haven't spoken since sixth grade, and Kenny has since taken on a ridiculous "homeboy" persona, complete with gargantuan pants and hip-hop vernacular. Each time the film returns to their conversation, they have dropped more of their façades until, finally, they can speak from their hearts. As Denise, relative newcomer Lauren Ambrose--with her engaging blend of cynicism and vulnerability--is like Janeane Garofalo's kid sister. She is, frankly, adorable, and everything she says on screen rings true. And Seth Green, a regular on "Buffy the Vampire Slayer," skillfully transforms himself from jive-talking loser to stammering, sensitive kid. Because these two give the best performances in the film, their story shines the brightest.

Meanwhile, Mike the Jock has a heart-to-heart with his former idol Trip McNeely (played convincingly by a bloated, beer-breathed Jerry O'Connell); class nerd William (Charlie Korsmo) finds popularity by lip-syncing to Guns 'n' Roses, and Preston has a brush with a Scott Baio-obsessed stripper (Jenna Elfman).

The film's biggest star, Jennifer Love Hewitt, actually has less screen time than many of the others. But because characters spend much of their time talking about and reacting to Amanda's actions, her presence is always felt. It's an effective device that creates a feeling that Amanda's incredible popularity renders her unattainable to mere mortals.

Not all the characters in the movie are as fleshed-out as they could be. The gaggle of nerds, in particular, is too stereotypical to be believed and provides little more than comic relief. But this is a minor misstep in an otherwise solid film.

Overall, Can't Hardly Wait successfully walks a very delicate line between sensitive teen drama and comedy. The characters, for the most part, will remind you of real kids you went to school with--and don't be surprised if you find yourself among them. While the film might look dated in just a few years, the way it dissects the awkward final hours of high school society will always be compelling. The '90s finally has its coming-of-age flick. It's about time.

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