Is it really true that high school teenage comedies are becoming one of the most original and intellectual genres in American film? When I watched 10 Things I Hate About You, I was prepared to roll my eyes and condescend. The premise is that Katharine “Kat” Stratford (Julia Stiles) is a smart, attractive, but unfriendly 18-year-old at Padua High School in Seattle. Kat is, like, really mean. Her younger sister Bianca (Larisa Oleynik), who is 16 years old, wants to date boys but their strict dad won’t let her until Kat does. So any guys interested in Bianca have to find a way to make the difficult Kat more dateable before they can even think about kissing Bianca.
This week’s film is the cleverest, most amusing, and most endearing. It is also a delightful tribute to William Shakespeare in a charming and genuine way. The locations hold many hints, and the storyline is loosely inspired by The Taming of the Shrew, with a touch of Much Ado About Nothing.
The setting in Padua High School is reminiscent of Alicia Silverstone’s iconic film, Clueless. A new student, Cameron, is introduced to the school’s absurd cliques and popular groups. His guide is the anxious and neurotic Michael, who is infatuated with a girl named Mandella, known for her love of William Shakespeare. When Michael sees a picture of Shakespeare in Mandella’s locker, he nervously points out the ruff around the poet’s neck and asks, “Is that to prevent him from licking his stitches?” This line received a loud laugh from the audience 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.
Claire Danes was the lead actress in the popular teen drama My So-Called Life, which is considered a modern classic in American television. She starred alongside the incredibly attractive Jared Leto, who is rumored to be a secret crush of Kat’s in the film. Some scenes in the movie seem to be inspired by this highly beloved TV series, such as a scene in an English class where initially uninterested students become engrossed in a Shakespearean sonnet assigned to them.
In the movie “10 Things,” Kat and her classmates are tasked with analyzing Sonnet 141, which discusses how love is not based on physical appearance. They are then required to update the poem into modern English while maintaining its original meter. Towards the end of the film, Kat presents her version of the poem in the form of a passionate rap, venting about the 10 things she dislikes about the boy she was manipulated into loving.
We are used to equating “dumbing down” with “modern commercial American cinema,” and we often criticize the youth-oriented nature of American films. However, 10 Things challenges this notion by portraying young people who are knowledgeable about literature, including works by Sylvia Plath and Betty Friedan. This raises the question: why aren’t British filmmakers creating intelligent, bookish movies for young viewers? With our abundance of resources and rich cultural heritage, why are we only producing films like Virtual Sexuality, which patronize teenage audiences? Meanwhile, American films like 10 Things, Cruel Intentions, and Clueless – which are expected to succeed in the marketplace – give credit to their youthful target audience by including literary references.
10 Things is a bright little romantic comedy, nicely and sharply written, which wears its learning winningly and lightly.