What does it say about Hollywood that it has taken a British writer, Paula Milne, and a British director, Antonia Bird, to come up with the most provocative movie in years about American first love and American teenage anxiety?
Mad Love is a little rough around the edges, but there's plenty of native intelligence in this romance linking opposites--a constrained boy who's had to be a surrogate parent to his younger siblings and a free-spirited girl whose glamorous rebellion masks profound emotional problems. Fittingly, these teenagers live on opposite shores of a Seattle lake, and when they run away together, we sense there may be too much water to cross. The journey is the thing.
Director Bird, who's endured quite a flap over Priest, really has empathy for misfits and outsiders, and she clearly understands the roller coaster of adolescent agony and ecstasy. She has also gotten astonishing performances from a young actress, woman-child Drew Barrymore--who had been written off by many as a no-talent bad girl--and from a teen heartthrob, Chris O'Donnell, who breaks away from the pack here.
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The chemistry between them--jolts of passion, bewilderment and desperation--is so real that the kind of adult who pooh-poohs "puppy love" as inauthentic may have to reconsider, while teenagers will probably appreciate the respect Milne and Bird give their feelings. Wild child Casey (Barrymore) and rock-solid Matt (O'Donnell) may be ill-matched, or perfectly matched, as they flee from Washington state to the desert of New Mexico, but the raw energy of their attraction is always convincing.
It's easy to suspect Barrymore has used some of her own well-publicized personal problems in this affecting portrait of manic depression, and why not? "I like rudeness, noise, honesty and danger," Casey boldly announces. What she doesn't have is peace. Meanwhile, motherless Matt, who's practically raised his twin brother and sister, is drawn to her exoticism. Casey sets off a fire alarm to get his attention, and she clamps her hands over his eyes as he drives--a touching test of trust. But even he can't be lover, father and doctor all at once.
This exuberant, bittersweet love story honors the kids with complexity, and the grunge-rock soundtrack reflects their restless spirit, but Bird and Milne also do right by the parents. Matt's father (Kevin Dunn) doesn't quite get it, but we come to understand why; Casey's parents (Joan Allen and Jude Ciccolella) are frazzled, and we grasp that, too.
While most of Hollywood continues to exploit its vast youth audience with cynical teen trash, Mad Love may be one of the few films to actually turn that audience's collective head by speaking truly.