The ‘90s were wild. Time was, you could assemble a gaggle of fresh-faced young actors, give them relatively little to do except be incredibly attractive, add in a rad soundtrack, maybe some celeb cameos — and you’d have yourself a gigantic blockbuster hit. Few films stand as a better testament to that bizarre trend than Robert Iscove’s 1999 teen Rom-Com She’s All That, which celebrated its 20th anniversary this week.
But, two decades on, how well does this No. 1 box office smash hold up? Might there be more to this seemingly formulaic, ugly-duckling comedy than meets the eye? Let’s dive right in.
What’s This Movie All About?
Our hero, Zack Siler (Freddie Prinze Jr.), has it all — in SoCal high school terms, anyway. He’s senior class president, a star soccer player, and generally worshipped by his classmates. He also happens to be dating the most popular girl in school, Taylor Vaughan (Jodi Lyn O’Keefe), who’s more than likely to be queen to his prom king. However, once spring break ends, Zack learns firsthand that Taylor is leaving him for boneheaded reality TV star Brock Hudson (Matthew Lillard).
Crushed by the loss and goaded on by pals Dean (Paul Walker) and Preston (Dulé Hill), Zack decides to make a bet. With six weeks left to prom night, he wagers that he can make any girl in the class queen material. The girl in question? Laney Boggs (Rachael Leigh Cook), a talented but unpopular aspiring artist.
“I feel like Julia Roberts in Pretty Woman.”
A modern-day take on George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion (which also inspired My Fair Lady), She’s All That is a saga of transformations — both figurative and literal, and some more believable than others.
The most obvious one, of course, is Laney’s “ugly duckling” transformation. With the help of Zack’s fashionable sister Mack (Anna Paquin), Laney changes from a perceived “dork” (glasses, quirky outfits, conservative hairstyle, etc.) to a more conventionally attractive young woman.
The emphasis She’s All That places on conventional outer beauty is disheartening. It’s one of the aspects of the movie that’s aged the worst. Though Laney eventually settles into her new self, the film seems to depict her previous self as lesser, forcing her to alter herself for the sake of plot and a few laughs.
The movie (as well as its characters) also places a great deal of pressure on Laney to “open up” emotionally. Ostensibly, the death of her mother when she was very young has made Laney retreat inward, afraid to express her feelings. Zack describes her early on as “scary and inaccessible” and tries to get her out of her proverbial shell.
By the film’s logic, being a loner, being emotionally reserved, is intrinsically wrong, and Laney is a problem that needs solving. It’s a particularly backwards message to send to young women (arguably the movie’s target audience) in a society that’s constantly telling them what they should and shouldn’t be.
Zack undergoes a more figurative transformation during the film. At the start, he’s a superficial jerk with some fairly shallow views about women. (“There are 2,000 girls in this school,” he says after Taylor jilts him, “and I can bump monkeys with every one of them!”) As he gets to know Laney better — and learns who Taylor really is — he grows into a more sensitive and accepting person, able to see past appearances and recognize people for their true selves.
“Have fun…and for you, not for someone else.”
That’s what Laney’s dad Wayne (Kevin Pollak) says to her before she leaves for prom. It illustrates another major theme of the film: following others’ expectations vs. going your own way.
This notion, of course, applies to Laney first and foremost. She finds herself constantly struggling to find some sort of balance between what she wants out of life and how the world sees her. Zack experiences a similar struggle with his father (Tim Matheson), who wants him to go to Dartmouth for college, like he did. Zack, however, is reluctant to live out someone else’s dream.
Zach’s dad wants him to go to his school
High School is Weird
Zack and Laney’s high school is less a school than a microcosm of the real world. Even the most insignificant of teenage drama becomes extremely high-stakes — because when you’re in high school, it is.
The campus’ resident DJ (Usher “Usher” Raymond) frequently talks about Zack and Taylor as though they were major political figures. The iconic prom dance sequence plays out more like a war scene, and it’s shot with the same kind of intensity.
Does It Hold Up?
Well, yes and no.
In addition to the issues we’ve already discussed, a number of the tactics Zack uses on Laney would read today — and indeed, read then — as various degrees of harassment. There’s the scene, for instance, where Zack takes off Laney’s glasses and tells her that her eyes look beautiful (she storms off in a huff, as any normal person would). Or the part where Laney uses chores as an excuse to get away from Zack, so he hires a troop of JV soccer players to clean her house. Which is essentially just glorified stalking.
To the movie’s credit, though, it takes a surprisingly proactive attitude against sexual harassment, and Cook portrays Laney as an intelligent individual with agency. When one of her classmates tries to take advantage of her, she blows an air horn in his ear. “I just hope it doesn’t cause any permanent damage,” she later jokes.
The screenplay, co-penned by R. Lee Fleming, Jr. and (I am not making this up) M. Night Shyamalan, is decently clever. It’s not nearly as crude as spiritual descendants like Superbad, but it lacks a lot of the charm of its forebears, such as Heathers and Clueless. Still, the cast’s pretty game, and they do the best they can with the relatively thin story.
“Strike up the band…”
One of the movie’s major saving graces is its killer soundtrack, which features songs from some of the hippest musical acts of the ‘90s. We’re talking Stretch Princess, the Afghan Whigs, Jurassic 5, Liz Phair, Remy Zero, Goldie, Fatboy Slim, and many more.
And then there’s Sixpence None the Richer’s “Kiss Me,” which swells in the background as Laney descends the stairs post-makeover to an agape-mouthed Zack (and also pops up during the end credits). It’s one of those songs that’s so sweet and lovely, so swoony and lilting, that you can’t help but feel your heart soar when you hear it. It’s enough to make you forget, if only for a few minutes, how problematic the movie is.
She’s All That isn’t exactly a masterpiece, but there’s a remarkable sweetness and charm to it that carry through its less appetizing moments. At its best, it’s a harmless piece of romantic fluff that goes down easy and leaves you with that familiar, warm, fuzzy feeling. And sometimes, that’s all you really want from a movie.
Thank you for reading! What are your thoughts on She’s All That? Comment down below!
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