The world is too messed up to obsess over bad movies as much as we do; isn’t it time we obsess over good ones? In his monthly column You Have To See This, Chuck Winters reaches into his pile of flawed, forgotten, or just plain fascinating gems to figure out what makes them tick and what makes them matter.
“Love does not consist of gazing at each other, but in looking outward together in the same direction.”
-Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, Airman’s Odyssey
“When you find the right person, anything’s possible.”
-Nicole Oakley, A Movie That I Swear Is Worth Watching
Young love. How annoying.
They say that 95% of romantic relationships that are formed before college simply can’t go the distance. Even if we don’t fuck it up outright, the ways we grow and change as we move into adulthood tend to work against our seemingly important relationships in youth. Yet we romanticize young love as the truest form of love, even though some of the tried and true tropes of young romantic fiction are signs of trouble in reality. When you’re fifteen, “I can fix him/her” might sound brave. When you’re 30, your stomach twists when you hear those words.
That said, I’m a hopeless romantic. Even when my mature mind wants to downplay the power of romance, that little excitable teenager within me still loves hearing (and telling) stories about love conquering all. Don’t get me wrong; teenage me was pickier than the average chick throwing a sleepover with her BFFs. I like 10 Things I Hate About You because I’m not a monster, and I like the American Pie movies because there’s real charm amidst its raunch. But those movies, and countless other teen romances of the late 90s / early aughts that I passed hard on, have a simple aesthetic that foregoes nuance in favor of basic, direct storytelling. Everyone in these movies lives comfortably. Conflicts are spelled out clearly, with obvious heroes and villains. The on-screen action is crisply photographed, mechanically cut, and soundtracked to up-and-coming pop-rock bands that spell out exactly how you should feel at any given moment.
Then there’s Crazy/Beautiful, which follows those rules…except when it doesn’t.
Released in June 2001, Crazy/Beautiful stars Kirsten Dunst (recently acclaimed for her work on Fargo) and Jay Hernandez (the best part of Suicide Squad), and was directed by John Stockwell. The film got wrecked at the box office: It debuted at #9, beaten by Pearl Harbor in its 6th week of release. Box Office Mojo shows that it opened in a limited number of theaters compared to the competition, but I don’t think this trailer really helped much.
At its core, Crazy/Beautiful is a lot like any story of young love that goes for mass appeal, right down to the simplistic messages about “going for it” and “following your heart,” which give birth to many glaring imperfections (like the bit of dialogue epigraphed at the top of this essay). Right from the moment the movie starts to unspool, though, something seems different about the ethereal score; it’s maybe too heavy by half, but otherwise it wouldn’t feel that out of place in an early Sofia Coppola drama. There’s a washed-out texture to the image that feels more Tony Scott than John Hughes, and the first line of the film is a nostalgic yet uncharacteristically morose bit of narration from its female lead, Nicole Oakley (Dunst): “I remember most of seventeen.”
John Stockwell started as an actor; a small-time “that guy” at his peak, probably best known as the dude who washed out of Fighter Weapons School at the beginning of Top Gun. His directing career began in earnest with the 2000 HBO drama Cheaters, which he also wrote. (The Crazy/Beautiful script is credited to Phil Hay & Matt Manfredi; Stockwell claims to have done uncredited rewrites with Lizzy Weiss, who would script his next film, Blue Crush.) Cheaters is a hell of a film in its own right; suffice to say, it proved Stockwell to be a thoughtful storyteller with a surprising grip on the odd nuances of morality.
In the commentary for this movie, Stockwell often cops to a preference for naturalism and verisimilitude. In the first scene, where Nicole meets Carlos Nuñez (Hernandez) after his horndog friends try to hit on her, those friends are first-timers, cast from local high schools and told to do their thing; according to Stockwell, this describes 60% of the cast. When we meet Carlos’ mother in the next scene, she’s not some glamorous MILF that’s been “ghettoed up.” She’s an average middle-aged woman with a stern but loving approach to parenting.
The production design is on point, too. Carlos clearly lives in a rough part of town, but this isn’t shoved into your face in some attempt to make you pity how the other half lives; it feels like a home. Remarkably, that same lived-in feeling permeates the glass mansion on the coast that Nicole lives in. Her room looks like a teenager’s room, with laundry strewn about and collages from her photography hobby lining the walls. Nothing is overglamorized or over-dilapidated; Stockwell puts in a nigh-Cassavetian effort to make these different worlds seem more real and relatable than the colorful stages and pretty sock-puppet people of your average teen movie.
It’s thoughtful for what you might assume is a simple romance about the good white girl falling for the bad Latino boy. Right off the bat, though, the story subverts those expectations by making Carlos the good one. He’s got enough brains, grit, and perhaps luck to be bused two hours from East LA to a high school in the Pacific Palisades. He has to wake up every weekday before dawn to make this trip, just to live the kind of All-American high school lifestyle that the average white boy could stumble into with a quarter of the effort. He wants to fly for the Navy after school, so he’s busting as much ass as possible so he can get into Annapolis.
It’s Nicole who barrels into his life like the train at the end of Silver Streak. Days after that first meeting, while cutting class with her friends, Nicole catches Carlos trying to make his way to the bathroom. She invites him over and offers him a swig from a water bottle that turns out to be filled with vodka. Of course, a teacher comes by at that exact moment, and suddenly, Carlos is serving detention for the first time in his life along with Nicole and her friend, who are getting into spray bottle fights like it’s no big deal.
The more Carlos hangs out with her, the more it shows that Nicole isn’t so much “free-spirited” as she is “unhinged.” She drives drunk. She parties hard. She leans into everything she does to a reckless degree. And it’s that attitude, scary as it is, that can’t help but intrigue the overworked Carlos, just like his dedication intrigues the impulsive Nicole. Their initial attraction is purely hormonal; Nicole is approaching him like she’d approach any fling. But the more Carlos makes her work for it, the more they both see something special in each other, until the moment they finally hook up and Nicole realizes, in a daze, “…that was different.”
Racial politics are a strong part of this film’s world; there are scenes in this movie that don’t advance the narrative at all, but paint a subtle picture of the palpable tension between the two different worlds. A Latina student shit-talks Nicole at school after they accidentally bump into each other. Carlos’ friends throw down with a group of his football teammates who threaten to “call INS on your ass.” Later in the movie, Carlos is pulled over by a cop while he’s driving a blackout-drunk Nicole home in her car, leading to a situation. These scenes give you strong ideas of how the races get along in the Palisades, but INS threat aside, the film rarely tells you outright that the confrontations are racially driven. The tension is kept to a simmer in the background; no moralizing, no pleas to get along, just the world as it is. The film is far more interested in the blurry line between insanity and love. As he falls deeper in with Nicole, Carlos starts neglecting his friends, his family, his education. The racial angle of the film informs this conflict in clever ways: Carlos has busted his ass to get ahead in a world that’s clearly dominated by white people, and as his family tells him, he’s on the verge of throwing it all away on a white girl.
But it’s Nicole’s father, Congressman Tom Oakley (Bruce Davidson), who sets Carlos straight. Oakley’s a terrific character; the kind of well-meaning liberal idiot who wants to (and does) help his community, but will still initially assume that Carlos is a relative of his maid. His heart is clearly in the right place, though, which makes it all the more tragic when he lays down the law after he starts noticing Carlos’ erratic behavior for himself. “Stay away from my daughter,” he tells Carlos, not because he doesn’t want her banging the Latino boy, but because he feels his daughter is damaged goods who brings down anybody who gets close to her. If Carlos breaks it off with Nicole, Oakley will happily write him a recommendation for Annapolis.
Crazy/Beautiful has a very sober view of Nicole and Carlos’s relationship. It’s not cynical; it sympathizes with the love they have for each other. Given the way Stockwell has backdropped the racial tensions within this story’s setting, it’s also worth asking if Oakley would be so concerned about Carlos’ judgement if he was white. Still, the film isn’t entirely dismissive of Oakley’s concerns. For him, it comes back to the suicide of Nicole’s mother; how Nicole was the one who found the body, and how so much of Nicole reminds him of the woman he once loved, right down to the multiple suicide attempts of her own. He talks about it when he gives his ultimatum to Carlos, and he doesn’t come across as a domineering, mildly prejudiced congressman; he’s a frightened father who just wants to make sure the people he respects doesn’t get hurt by his out-of-control daughter.
Carlos buys in; how could he not? As much as he loves Nicole, he’s feeling pressure on all sides to focus on what’s supposed to matter, and he’s got enough self-awareness to understand how close he is to losing everything he’s worked his whole life for. His decision to break up with Nicole, like Oakley’s ultimatum, is driven by these very human fears and impulses, impulses that blind them to the possibility that “I’m dumping you because your dad thinks you can only destroy people” might not be the best thing for Nicole to figure out.
Nicole’s inevitable meltdown gives her Valley socialite stepmother (Lucinda Jenney) all the ammo she needs to convince her husband to put her in a behavior modification school. This would probably be where the brave indie version of this movie ends; on a bittersweet farewell that acknowledges the impermanent nature of this sort of intense, full-throttle young love. After all, Nicole has issues. She requires more help than Carlos can provide, and the only place she can get that help is away from Carlos. People don’t stay the same as they go from childhood to adulthood; they grow, they change, and like 95% of couples, they move apart.
As they say.
Some may be familiar with the literary term “magical realism.” As the phrase itself suggests, it’s a style of fiction that adds magical elements to a realistic view of the world. By its nature, magical realism involves a critique of privileged society; it was born from its Latin American progenitors needing a way to talk about the dictatorships they lived under without outright saying “this sucks ass.” In many cases, the magic of the story becomes a way for the marginalized to undermine established viewpoints of the entrenched elite.
It’s not a stretch to say that Carlos, being a Latino kid growing up in East LA, is a marginalized member of society. However, I think we can also say that Nicole, a depressed self-medicating teenager routinely written off as a drunken troublemaker, is also marginalized in her own way despite coming from privilege. They’re oppressed by parents and mentor figures who assume that they will always know better, themselves educated by a society that demands young Latino men work twice as hard for half as much while young white women shut up and appreciate what they have. And while it’s good for rich white people to help out underprivileged Latinos, said Latinos should stay in their lane and not help white people because they could never understand, and anyway, white people are the reason Latinos are so underprivileged to begin with. “It’s not really a race thing,” they say, “honest. It’s just How Things Are.”
If we define “magic” as something not subject to natural law, it follows that in a sense, love is a sort of magic. There are no set rules that determine who we fall for and who we don’t, and when we do fall, our self-preservation instincts tend to falter in favor of that person. Some would call that “insanity.” Whatever you want to call it, instead of letting Nicole go, Carlos drops everything that seems logical to him and everyone around him and whisks Nicole away for a lost weekend at a motel just outside of town. Because Carlos is willing to meet her brand of crazy halfway, Nicole’s more open to listening to him when he admits to her, in a scene staged more casually than you might expect, that she scares him sometimes. That plants a seed that inspires Nicole to actually want to be better, instead of simply accepting that she has to be better, and they decide to go back home. After a powerful heart-to-heart with Nicole, Oakley thanks Carlos for not listening to him and calls off his plan to send her away.
Maybe that’s not how love works, at least not the kind that’s supposed to last. But it’s the basis of everything that matters about young love, why we need to roll the dice on it regardless of those impossible odds. First love is associated with when we first find the courage to embrace what seems insane for the sake of what seems right. That’s how we learn about the kind of people we are capable of becoming, this film argues; more importantly, that’s how the people we matter to learn.
Anyway, first love may or may not be lasting love, but that doesn’t make it any less real. In the last scene, Carlos is driving Nicole somewhere, and she can’t believe how well her talk with her father went. “How did you do that?” she asks. Carlos is confused; after all, he wasn’t there. “You were so there,” she assures him, and then she snuggles up to him while he drives on.
As the camera pans up over the roof of the car into the ending montage, Nicole and Carlos are both looking forward.
If you know of any movies that you think deserve to be covered in “You Have To See This,” feel free to tweet your suggestions to @DivisionPost!