Re-watching nineties teen movies as an adult: Drive Me Crazy (1999)

Drive Me Crazy (1999)

So you know when you re-watch films from your childhood and you get that feeling of, wow, I did not get this film when I was a kid. I wasn’t quite expecting to have that feeling about Drive Me Crazy (1999), ostensibly a romantic teen comedy about two neighbours who pretend to fall in love as a way to manipulate their respective love interests (both have been spurned). Essentially, it stars Melissa Joan Hart, the actress who played Sabrina the teenage witch, and some other people.

Whilst I remember being distinctly unimpressed when I watched this film all those years ago, it turns out I may have just been confused. This time, I loved it. Aside from being side-splittingly funny and satisfying my feminine craving for a dose of romance, it imparted a deeply resonating moral that I simply wasn’t expecting.

As a writer, one dimension of character development (whether that be in book, film or on TV) that particularly interests me is how two people can have a transformative effect on one another – especially if the two characters are complementary opposites. Though this is probably most simply described as ‘character tension’, I am interested in how one can go beyond simply creating dramatic tension and instead exploring how two people, ostensibly clashing, can actually enrich one another, given fertile circumstances.

So, in this case, Melissa Joan Hart’s character is nicknamed “Miss School Spirit.” A girl called Nicole, her passion is high school and her ambition is to stage the centenary alumni dance (alumni are graduates of a school or university).

The story kicks off when her bitchy friend indirectly causes her love interest, Brad, to ask a cheerleader to the dance instead of Nicole. Now, while the concept of teenagers asking each other to dances is distinctly American, I think we can overlook this bizarre cultural convention in the interests of narrative analysis.

Paralleling this turn of events, Nicole’s neighbour, Chase, is dumped by his girlfriend for refusing to attend a protest against animal testing. In contrast to Nicole, Chase is a self-consciously-styled social anarchist who enjoys disrupting and mocking mainstream high school life. Nicole and Chase are neighbours, and in order to save face, Nicole insists that Chase take her to the upcoming dance – which will also serve as a way to make his ex-girlfriend jealous, and hopefully take him back.

So, to cut to the chase, whilst the two main characters initially hook up with one another as a means to an end, [spoiler alert] they ultimately end up transforming one another, and enabling each other to live more authentic, happier lives. I particularly like the character dynamic of Chase as a complex, brooding, disaffected youth being ‘loosened up’ by the peppy Nicole, who nevertheless has a slightly ironic, quirky, edgy side to her. She shows him the value of participating in wider society, whilst he imparts a sense of pride in the individual and being true to oneself.

The conclusion of the film, after the prerequisite emotional drama, is that Nicole and Chase’s mutual respect and trust for one another can override traditional social cliques, fostering a genuine human connection. Humanity and kindness are shown to be more important than tribalism, though the film displays unusual depth in that the ‘jocks’ and cheerleaders are not presented as sociopathic – rather, slightly unthinking and moronic but relatively good-natured.

Another moral of the film is that individual identity is not shackled to the temporal traits of personality; rather, the self is fluid and ever-changing. I think it’s incredible that the filmmakers manage to express this idea through a teen romantic comedy, which I spectacularly failed to grasp at the age of twelve.

The sophistication of this film, I think it’s fair to say, is breathtaking. I love characters – especially in romantic contexts – who relate to one another through tension and opposing worldviews. This opens the doorway for a reconciliation of opposites, through the medium of paradox: a process which I find uniquely satisfying.

Some of my other favourite literary and cinematic examples of this character dynamic are:

  • Eliza Bennett and Mr Darcy from Pride and Prejudice (eighteenth-century novel by Jane Austen)
  • Lyra and Will from His Dark Materials (children’s fantasy series by Phillip Pullmann)
  • Kat and Patrick from Ten Things I Hate about you (romantic comedy film by Gil Junger)
  • Suki and Eric from True Blood (vampire TV series by Alan Ball)
  • Rick Castle and Kate Beckett from Castle (comedy detective TV series from NBC)

The core of the relationship between the characters in Drive Me Crazy, and similar narratives, is based not on mutual reinforcement of familiar values but unswerving challenge of each other’s status quo. Neither character will compromise their independence, but both are willing to grow through a mutual exchange of ideas and support. I strongly recommend this film to everyone, though I may have oversold it a bit.

I’d really like more suggestions of films, TV shows or books where this transformative character dynamic is done really well. Any ideas?

NB: This blogger didn’t agree with my analysis in 2011. I’m not particularly surprised!

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