Teacher’s Pet

Cheery leader: Barrymore (with David Arquette), finally getting it right in school.Photo: Suzanne Hanover/20th Century Fox

There isn’t a movie actress I get a bigger kick out of watching right now than Drew Barrymore. She really comes into her own in the teen comedy Never Been Kissed, which is the best star vehicle she’s ever had. Most of the current teen-fave actresses – Jennifer Love Hewitt, Emily Bergl The Rage: Carrie 2 , Rachael Leigh Cook She’s All That – look varnished and rail-thin; they have a glossy junior-debutante cuteness, and they’re all somewhat interchangeable. (The same, in its way, is true for their male co-stars, most of whom have a prom-king sheen.) It’s too early to tell whether most of these kids are real actors or just youth-pic glamour-pusses. They’ve only been around long enough to twinkle and pout and shriek. But Drew Barrymore, at 24, has been highly recognizable in the movies since she was a wide-eyed babykins in E.T. And because of her family lineage, she seems to go back much further than that. Audiences feel proprietary with Barrymore because we’ve been been privy to her and her soap-opera life for so long, and because she keeps bouncing back. She has the resiliency of a cherub – a naughty cherub. It’s a marvelous fate that the heir to the royal Barrymore coat of arms should be this entrancing cutup who is possibly the least self-conscious actress around. She provides a link with John Barrymore, her grandfather, who also loved to be madcap. He used his famous profile as much for comedy as for romance and was perhaps the most self-conscious of actors.

The plot of Never Been Kissed is that old chestnut about returning to high school as an adult and getting it right this time. Josie Geller (Barrymore), a mousy whiz-kid copy editor at the Chicago Sun-Times, is assigned the job of going undercover at a local high school and reporting on what teens are up to. The joke is, she was out of it then and she’s out of it now. As a high-schooler eight years ago, with blotchy skin and braces, her nickname was Josie Grossie. In flashbacks, we see her in choice episodes of humiliation, including the time the class stud fooled her into thinking she was his prom date and then, swinging by in his limo to pick her up, hurled eggs at her and sped away. What boosts scenes like these out of the usual teen-picture rut is an appreciation of just how pop our bad memories of high school have become. Never Been Kissed, which was directed by Raja Gosnell from a script by Abby Kohn and Marc Silverstein, turns the worst embarrassments of high school into sicko horror-movie scenarios – which, of course, is how we remember them now. And the kicker to this sick joke is, if we were to magically go back to high school and try it all over again, we’d still flop. (For anybody who has ever attended his or her high-school reunion and noted how depressingly quickly everybody falls into the old cliques, this film is no fib.)

In the beginning, trying to be cool, Josie re-enters high school wearing white jeans and a pink feather boa and big hair. It’s a disastrous getup, and pretty soon her only allies are the geeky brains in the math club. In English class, she knows all the answers, and this only alienates her more, though her sensitive-souled teacher (Michael Vartan) finds himself strangely attracted to her. Never Been Kissed isn’t out to alienate its target audience by breaking down clichés: We are once again in a familiar filmland where cool is shallow and smart is nerdy and the nerds get their revenge. (It’s the template for practically every high-school movie ever made.) But at least the filmmakers are having a bang-up time playing the old standards. Certainly Barrymore is: She works up the awfulness of being ostracized with such comic brio that you almost dread her inevitable cool-girl transformation. And yet when she becomes a winner, she’s just as loosey-goosey, and enchanting, as ever. Josie doesn’t sell out: She may be posing undercover as a high-school student, but she’s no poseur. The film’s message is a sappy one – be yourself – but Josie makes it respectable. She triumphs in the end by simply being who she is.

Barrymore may appear to come across as a sweet-tempered ingenue in Never Been Kissed, but her screen image, as ever, is more complicated than that. Her cuddliness always has an edge. What distinguishes Barrymore from the other actresses of roughly her generation – even the ones who might seem fairly similar to her, like Reese Witherspoon or Alicia Silverstone – is the undercurrent of mischief, even lewdness, in her dimpled smiles. (That pint-size voluptuary Christina Ricci shares this quality, but her impudence lacks the buoyancy of Barrymore’s.) Her sweet-kid performances are heartfelt, but she’s no pushover; though she may blush demurely, she’s never more than a beat away from screw-you mode. She’s equally convincing playing pure-souled types – as in this film, or in The Wedding Singer or Ever After or Home Fries – and depraved misfits, as in Guncrazy or Poison Ivy or, on TV, The Amy Fisher Story. She can be radiantly wholesome or radiantly wicked, and both states seem essential to her appeal.

Barrymore has never had a male co-star worthy of her (unless you count E.T.). She’s also never starred as an adult in a first-rate movie. But that hardly seems to matter. The throwaway quality of Never Been Kissed gives her a chance to cut loose in a way that a more “prestigious” movie wouldn’t. There’s a scene in a nightclub where the prim Josie unknowingly eats a hash brownie and suddenly scampers onto the bandstand and boogies her heart out. For us, her joy in letting her hair down is pure oxygen. We’ve seen girls like Josie before, in the old beach-party movies or in John Hughes teen flicks, but never with such wide-eyed abandon. She’s a moonstruck jitterbug. Barrymore pulls off the neatest trick of the year: She makes all this pop schlock matter.

Teacher’s Pet