The opening notes of Joan Jett hollering “Bad Reputation” made me grow wistfully nostalgic for Freaks & Geeks reruns. The hope budded that maybe 10 Things I Hate About You would be the same tour de force narrative brimming with the same type of candor. It is not. Not at all. But that’s okay. It has its own amount of charms that forgive the obvious chinks in the armor of this very loose adaptation.
True, its story reads exactly like a book or rather a play, William Shakespeare’s Taming of the Shrew to be exact, but 10 Things I Hate About You succeeds due to the chemistry and charisma of its players. There is genuine concern on the part of the audience as we watch them go through the interludes and rhythms that we already foresee beforehand. This is not the reinvention of the wheel in terms of high school romance films — not by a long shot — but the script coauthored by Karen McCullah Lutz and Kirsten Smith is equal parts lithe and witty. There’s actually some life to it, even if the plot is an age old rehash of the Bard. It makes knowing what will happen next of lesser importance and more crucial how the resulting events will affect our protagonists — how they will deal with the inevitable teen drama.
Because the set-up is simple. There are two sisters. For arbitrary reasons, one of the said sisters cannot go to a party unless her older sister is also present. That’s at the behest of their resident oddball father who’s also a bit of a worrywart. Important for this tale is that everyone in school seems to know the set-up too. The smart aleck cool kid Joey Donner is looking to bed the perky Bianca (Larisa Oleynik) for the very reason that she is untouchable. Meanwhile, the starry-eyed new kid Cameron (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) falls instantly in love with this blonde vision. He doesn’t realize he has competition.
However, it all seems for naught due to Bianca’s “shrewish” sister Katherine (Julie Stiles) whose acerbic outlook on life seems destined to lead to dismal isolation. It’s no wonder she curls up in her living room with Sylvia Plath. Still, not to be outdone Joey enlists the help of resident bad boy Patrick Verona (Heath Ledger) to win Kat over and get her on a date. So right there you have the basis for the entire film with our two sisters and two parallel love stories (or loathe stories) with the cool kid running interference while also putting Patrick on his payroll.
At this point, it’s not necessary to get into all the gory details because we’ve probably seen them all before. But for some strange unknowable reasons I accept its cliches and sappiness and that, once again, I credit to the cast. Ledger and Stiles work well together churning up the sparks, he by exemplifying an equal dose of good-natured charm and roguishness. She is simultaneously able to balance the necessary contempt with genuine care. She cares for her sister, her father, and ultimately Patrick as well. Larisa Oleynik is a capable counterpoint to Stiles and although his role feels relatively minor, Levitt wins the sympathies of any person ever on the outside earnestly looking in.
A major highlight involves Ledger lip syncing to Frankie Valli with synchronized band accompaniment as he tries to win back Kat while concurrently evading campus security. It’s in such a devilishly charming (or dorky) moment where he seems to have won Kat over for good. Although that’s not quite the case, he has the audience on his side for a great deal of the time after that. It only takes the final act for Kat to get there too. It takes a literature assignment of gushy poetry about how much she hates him, for her to realize that she hates being without him even more. Is this destructive? Maybe, but this is a movie about teenagers and teenagers aren’t supposed to have everything figured out. That’s part of the reason why we still readily watch movies about them.