Make no mistake about it, crazy/beautiful has lofty goals that it could never achieve. It’s about love against the odds, love as character reform, love in the face of the beast that is adolescence. As appealing as it would be to take this film seriously, it demands a good bit of detachment to enjoy.

That said, crazy/beautiful has plenty to offer. The storyline is unimportant, but here it is: Nicole (Kirsten Dunst) is a blond, alcoholic congressman’s daughter who’s in love with Carlos (Jay Hernandez), a Latino on his way to the naval academy who’s raised by a single mother. Nicole loves Carlos, and Carlos loves her (we think), but how will they make it work?

Clearly, this is not what’s going to make the film intriguing. What happens along the way, however, contains plenty of pleasant surprises. Among them is a make-out scene in a darkroom that tops Fred Astaire’s darkroom serenade of Audrey Hepburn in Funny Face. While Nicole tells Carlos why she develops her own photos–to manipulate, cut, alter–the scene is composed of jump cuts and close-ups, and is bathed in a deep red, craftily synthesizing dialogue, image and editing.

Director John Stockwell, who helmed last year’s Cheaters, doesn’t impose the music video style that has been such a prerequisite for teen films of the past few years. The film does indeed look slick, but it’s calmly paced, keeping expressionistic camera moves and lighting functional rather than unnecessarily hip.

Along the same lines, dialogue in crazy/beautiful is realistically stilted, as Hernandez and Dunst deliver their lines with a self-conscious sense of inadequacy that makes the artificial verbosity of Dawson’s Creek or Felicity embarrassingly obvious. Characters don’t fling around semi-clever witticisms to deal with their problems, but are sincerely monosyllabic and direct. They stop short, stutter–and often scenes run their course without anyone having been able to say what they mean. Admittedly, the film traffics in obligatory teen-movie scenes, such as when Hernandez has to talk about his social background and tell us why it’s so difficult for him to love someone so rich, so blond, so self-destructive.

Fortunately, however, most racial commentary is reserved for the ways in which the Latino/white love affair affects the friends and family of the lovers. While Carlos never has to really confront anyone about dating a white girl, their affair indirectly leads to a fistfight between his white football buddy and one of his Latino childhood friends.

We’re also treated to those inevitable scenes when Dunst has to quiver her lip, start sobbing, and confess her love, or yell at her dad. But when Dunst isn’t in intense close-up, when she is allowed a bit of freedom in a full-shot scene of friendly banter, she carries the burden of the film’s aims like no one else could. Her actions and facial expressions look improvised, but remarkably accurate. She knows what mannerisms are most reassuring in a new lover, the way you should touch someone’s shoulder, tug someone’s wrist, or how to playfully convince someone to spend one of those priceless high school Saturdays together. She can even sniff a Hi-Liter with no affectation.

This is Dunst’s film. It’s the first time she has played such a grungy girl. The tripped-out girl in retro Iron Maiden T-shirts is entirely a construct, both to move the narrative and make the film seem a little hipper, playing her indie Montague against Hernandez’s square Capulet. While Dunst nails every scene that isn’t beyond repair, the way she is shot often defeats what’s unique about her. If Stockwell would just back off a bit and let her work, she could save him the trouble of forcing us through the painful monologues (from her as well as others) about how tortured she is.

Dunst is on display throughout almost every scene of crazy/beautiful, and the use of her sexuality is nearly exploitative. (In the darkroom scene, her nipples poke through her tank top and actually cast a shadow.) While scenes of her traipsing about in panties and tight-fitting T-shirts with no bra fall in line with her character, there is no mistake that her body is what sells the film. At the same time, though, her eyes have never looked more sunken in, her hair so matted with grease–no sex symbol in recent memory has had so many blemishes shot in close-up. It may be offensive that a girl who still has pimples is seen in her underwear so many times, but it’s simultaneously exhilarating to see such flawed beauty displayed as paradigm.

crazy/beautiful does not rest comfortably in the teen movie genre, however hard it tries. Squirming beneath the surface is an un-ironic melodrama containing surprisingly understated social commentary. Perhaps most importantly, crazy/beautiful is the first film to effectively showcase the phenomenon of Kirsten Dunst–for better or worse. EndBlock