Why Never Been Kissed Is Still A High School Classic

Oh Drew, you're breaking our hearts.

Never Been Kissed

by Guy Pewsey |
Updated on

What is the most tragic scene in the history of cinema? Is it Meryl Streep, forced to choose between her two children in Sophie's Choice? Is it Kate Winslet, clutching Leonardo DiCaprio's frozen fingers at the end of Titanic? Is it Emma Thompson, weeping to Joni Mitchell as she realises she's married to an unfaithful sod in Love, Actually? No, actually. Without doubt, it is Drew Barrymore in Never Been Kissed, glowing with hope in unashamed hope and a lamé gown, as she steps outside to go to the prom with her high school crush.

I can visualise it, frame by frame. Madonna's Like A Prayer plays in the background. Josie sees the limo approach and beams. Billy rises from the sunroof, apparently to greet her. But he is joined by a blonde teen - his real date - eggs her, and drives away. Josie offers a tearful wail of devastation and, hearing her mother back in the house, flees in shame. It is one of the most affecting and genuinely heartbreaking moments in film. Sorry Meryl.

Never Been Kissed, now streaming on Disney +, is schlocky on paper. Drew is Josie Geller, a mousey young newspaper reporter known for her unassuming ways and wardrobe. That is until she is assigned a big story, and sent back to high school undercover.

Somehow, the result is completely moving and utterly charming. Drew has genuine comedic chops, nimbly expressing the hopes and horrors of teenage life. For her, the assignment is the chance to give a kick to her career but it is also, and far more importantly, an opportunity to bury the ghosts of her past, to put the pain of adolescence behind her and become the woman she has longed to be. It is no wonder that it is still a favourite of the genre, more than twenty years since its release.

No, it isn't perfect. The script is, occasionally, nonsensical. 'Do I want to be crunched?' Josie asks. 'By Guy?' one of her popular new friends asks. 'Oh yeah.' No one in the history of the world has used 'crunched' in this context. The film is littered with such incidents that cause pause. But its energy, its core, is hugely reflective of the alienation and cruelty of high school. Somehow, and possibly thanks to Drew's note-perfect performance, we even forgive the murky ethical exploration of undercover journalism involving minors and, of course, teacher-student relationships. Sorry Mr Coulson, flirting with your pupil doesn't become magically ok just because it turns out she's legal. Maybe don't show up at a public event filled with cameras and peers to out yourself as a would-be sexual predator.

Anyway, despite this admittedly dodgy element, it joins 10 Things I Hate About You, She's All That and Drop Dead Gorgeous in the pantheon on truly great teen films from 1999. What a year that was. With excellent supporting turns from Molly Shannon and Leelee Sobieski, and early roles for Jessica Alba and James Franco, it's a teen dream.

Say it with me: 'I'm not Josie Grossy anymore.' Feels good, doesn't it?

READ MORE: Why 10 Things I Hate About You Is The Perfect Teen Film

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