[Screen It]

(2000) (Chris Klein, Leelee Sobieski) (PG-13)

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Drama: After being sentenced to help rebuild a small town diner he inadvertently helped destroy, a prep school student finds himself falling for his adversary's girlfriend.
Kelley Morse (CHRIS KLEIN) is an arrogant and impudent student at an upscale private academy who's set to graduate as the valedictorian, attend an Ivy league college and follow in the footsteps of his successful father, John Morse (STUART WILSON), who's just given his son a new Mercedes as his graduation gift.

Kelley's future seems bright until he and his buddies take the car out for a spin and end up in the nearby small town's local diner. There, while flirting with Samantha Cavanaugh (LEELEE SOBIESKI), the owner's daughter, Kelley evokes the wrath of her longtime, hometown boyfriend, Jasper Arnold (JOSH HARTNETT). After a brief altercation, Kelley and his friends leave, but not before insulting Jasper and his small town ways.

Not one to let things slide, Jasper sets out after Kelley in a car chase that ends up with them crashing into the diner's gas station, inadvertently burning down the diner, and getting into hot water with the law. Instead of having them serve time, however, the local judge sentences the two to help in rebuilding the diner. While that's no problem for Jasper, Kelley has no place to stay and even less desire to spend his summer in what he considers a backwoods community.

He does eventually agree to the sentence and an offer by Jasper's mother, Betsy Arnold (ANNIE CORLEY) for him to stay in their guest bedroom, but neither he nor Jasper or his dad, Malcolm Arnold (MICHAEL ROOKER), the construction foreman, are happy about the arrangement. As such, Kelley does his work, but refuses to have anything to do with the Arnolds.

His attitude about the small town begins to change, however, when he encounters Samantha once again, and the sparks immediately fly between them, much to the dismay of her parents, Jo (ANNETTE O'TOOLE) and Earl (BRUCE GREENWOOD), the town's sheriff. As the budding romance also understandably sparks anger and jealousy in Jasper, he, Kelley and Samantha enter into a romantic triangle that will soon change their lives forever.

OUR TAKE: 6 out of 10
Whether ultimately true or not, there seems to be a law - written or otherwise - that most films aimed at teens can't realistically portray them or else the universe might explode like a great big zit. What else could possibly explain the predominance of stupid teen-based romantic comedies filled with stereotypically stupid teen characters and their brethren, the teen-based horror films?

You know, the ones that seemingly exist solely to show the supple bosoms of their young female stars in tight-fitting, cleavage revealing outfits when they're not otherwise screaming and/or being killed along with their male costars who've obviously been chosen from the standard, cross-section of high school students.

Although there are the occasional films, such as "Rushmore" and "Election," that break the mold and do something different with their characters and plot, the majority don't portray teens in a realistic or at least mostly realistic light.

Instead, we're usually subjected to the films dealing with guys wanting to get the girls who just want love and that are usually filled with the standard jocks, airhead or snobby blonds, geeks and pretty girls next door (that no one notices until the end of the film), who all speak witty or cultural referencing dialogue. To make matters worse, most teen-based films seemingly end either in death or at the prom/big dance where everything is resolved and true love wins out.

While 20th Century Fox's release of "Here on Earth" manages to include both of those elements in its ninety-some minute runtime - but in vastly different ways than the teen norm - it marks something of a welcomed return to more "old fashioned" type stories of teen love and romance. As such, the film's target audience of teenage girls will probably eat it up.

Of course, "old fashioned" isn't meant to imply a return to the days of Frankie and Annette, or that the film's soundtrack is void of current pop tunes. Yes, there's even the occasional MTV style moment thrown in here and there. Yet, and for the most part, the film has a less frenzied aura to it than most teen-based films. It contains none of the stupidly stereotypical characters that usually populate such current pictures, but does have the old Romeo and Juliet style story of star-crossed lovers thrown in for good measure.

So, while the film earns laudatory remarks for breaking the mold, the question that then follows is whether it's any good. There's certainly nothing here that's going to knock your socks off or change the world. For those looking for a heartfelt teen romance with strong performances from its leads, however, you could certainly ask for and expect far worse than what's delivered here.

Working from an original screenplay by Michael Seitzman ("Farmer & Chase"), director Mark Piznarski (making his film debut after helming episodes of TV shows such as "NYPD Blue" and "My So Called Life'), for the most part keep the film interesting. This is despite the presence of a less than sensational plot that ultimately turns predictable and then throws in a heavy dose of melodrama as a means of resolving the romantic triangle that the film's first half credibly sets up and maintains.

While the sudden turn of events late in the game may be telegraphed a bit too much for some viewers and critics, at least it doesn't come entirely out of the blue. In addition, while the less sentimental may believe that their gag reflex will be tested by the development, Piznarski and company manage to keep things from getting too mawkish.

Much of that's due to the fresh performances from Chris Klein ("American Pie," "Election"), Leelee Sobieski ("Eyes Wide Shut," "Deep Impact") and Josh Hartnett ("Halloween: H20," "The Faculty") who create believable and interesting characters who find themselves caught up in a confusing romantic triangle. While the script occasionally and temporarily abandons them and/or has them do things that contradict what had been built up to that point (especially regarding Klein's character toward the end), for the most part the performers overcome any "hiccups" the film throws their way.

One easily senses the effervescent chemistry between Kelley and Samantha that develops quite naturally despite their initial differences, while it's not difficult to appreciate Jasper's anger and jealousy that naturally follows. While there's certainly nothing novel here that hasn't already been explored countless times in countless other movies, TV shows and novels about the same subject material, the performers do such a fantastic job of creating believable, flesh and blood characters that only the ultra cynical will have a hard time getting wrapped up in their tangled affair.

Supporting performances are solid pretty much across the board, including Michael Rooker ("The Bone Collector") and Annie Corley ("The Cider House Rules") as Jasper's parents and Bruce Greenwood ("Double Jeopardy") and Annette O'Toole ("Cat People") playing the same for Samantha's character.

Meanwhile, production designer Dina Lipton and cinematographer Michael D. O'Shea ("Robin Hood: Men In Tights," various TV films) do a wonderful job of infusing the film with a gorgeous, down home look (Minnesota was used as a substitute for the film's Massachusetts setting) that only adds to the overall effect.

Although the film never develops into anything spectacular and its story might be somewhat plot impaired at times, the charismatic lead actors imbue the film with such personable and heartfelt performances that you can't help but appreciate their efforts. While the film doesn't quite manage to elicit the young love tragedy of a picture such as "Titanic" (especially since the film is lacking in the overall power and mystique of that story), it's probably the most effective and decent "teen weeper" to come along since then.

Not great, but certainly solid enough for what it's trying to achieve and featuring great performances from its leads that make the film rather palatable, "Here On Earth" manages to hit enough right notes and overcome most of its deficiencies to earn a passing grade. As such, the film rates as a 6 out of 10.

Reviewed March 20, 2000 / Posted March 24, 2000

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