For many moviegoers, it may seem like Drew Barrymore has been around forever. The youngest scion of the venerable Barrymore acting dynasty, Drew became a household name at the age of seven after her scene stealing supporting role in E.T. (1982). After a troubled adolescence, Drew not only got her acting career back on track in the early 90’s but also became one of the few female actors to become a successful film producer as well. Never Been Kissed is the first of the films she made via her Flower Films production banner. The film is notable not just for being the perfect vehicle to highlight Barrymore’s earthiness and strong comedic timing, but also for featuring other up and coming notable actors such as James Franco, Octavia Spencer and Jessica Alba.
Barrymore plays Josie Geller, an insecure and socially awkward 25-year old copy-editor for the Chicago Sun-Times.
In Never Been Kissed, Barrymore plays Josie Geller, an insecure and socially awkward 25-year old copy-editor for the Chicago Sun-Times. Disillusioned with her life and desperate to become a reporter, Josie constantly inundates her boss Gus (John C. Reilly) with ideas for stories. Neither Gus nor Josie’s colleague and confidante Anita (Molly Shannon) think she is quite ready to be a reporter just yet. Their sentiments are shared by Josie’s younger brother Rob (David Arquette), a former high school jock who is dealing with his own disillusionment while working at The Tiki Post, a Kinko’s-type postal store. During a meeting with her megalomaniacal Editor-In-Chief (Garry Marshall, in great form) Josie is handed a plum assignment to go undercover as a high school student to probe “what parents don’t know about their kids”.
Right about now you might be questioning how the Chicago Sun-Times would ever send a reporter to do a story of this nature. You might also be questioning how anyone would think Barrymore, as youthful as she may appear (24 at the time), could credibly pass for being a 17 year old. Luckily for Josie, the school apparently doesn’t do background checks or request transcripts before letting anyone enroll as a student. Audiences will quickly overlook these “Uh, really?” moments largely due to the effervescent Barrymore. Josie is still haunted by her own high school experiences, where she was taunted by her classmates (seen via numerous hilarious flashbacks) and cruelly given the nickname “Josie Grossy”. Josie has never had a real relationship due to the insecurities that still dodge her, and she is determined to return to high school for this assignment, in part to conquer them once and for all.
In what became a patented 1990’s rom-com staple, Josie undergoes a glamorous “makeover” before starting her first day back in high school. Courtesy of her gal pal Anita, Josie’s long, light brown hair is made stylishly short and blonde. Her dowdy gaucho pants and sensible shoes replaced with white satin pants, go-go boots and a white feather boa! If you don’t recall high school girls wearing feather boas to school in the 90s (or in any decade for that matter), you are not alone. The clothing is another treat in this movie, in case you forgot how omni-present pastel colors were for teenaged girls in the late 90s. The flashbacks to Josie’s 1980s high school years (BIG permed hair, side-ponytails, shoulder pads) are so hilarious, they will have you wishing they made a movie about that part of her life all by itself. Other laughable reminders of what now seems like a much simpler time include Josie having to rely on her “beeper” (no cell phone for every teen back then!) in order to communicate with the team back at the newspaper.
As expected, Josie’s return to South Glen South High School does not go smoothly. Her first day includes an unfortunate run-in with Gibby, Kirsten and Kristin, a trio of mean girls who along with hunky Guy Perkins (Jeremy Jordan) are the most popular students at school. Things improve when Josie meets her handsome English teacher Sam Coulson (Michael Vartan) and immediately becomes infatuated with the Shakespeare-loving hunk. Guy and his friends hide Josie’s car, but luckily she befriends Aldys (LeeLee Sobieski) a kind-hearted misfit whom Josie discovers is a kindred spirit and who reminds her of her younger self. Josie thinks Aldys may be able to help get inside information for her story by accompanying her to “The Court” a popular hangout where the high school kids go to drink and have sex. Josie isn’t able to get a story, as Guy prevents her and Aldys from entering. When a rival newspaper lands the scoop about The Court, Josie’s fed up Editor Gus demands she befriend the popular kids and has her wear a hidden camera to make sure she does so. This leads everyone at the newspaper to follow Josie’s ongoing travails as though it were a soap opera. Josie’s luck changes when her brother Rob enrolls in high school to help her navigate the terrain. After some clever manipulating of the popular kids by Rob, Josie soon finds herself allowed entree into their circle and is eventually asked out to the high school prom by none other than Guy himself.
The often under-rated David Arquette truly shines as the sweet, former high school jock
What elevates this flick slightly above most of the romantic comedies of that time period is the highly relatable premise of wanting to go back and relive/redo your high school years knowing what you now know as an adult. After all, there are far more people who probably felt just like Josie did in high school, never knowing the right thing to say or do and never quite fitting in despite their repeated best efforts. The film also wisely demonstrates that many of the “firsts” we experience in life do not occur solely during the “coming of age” years as a teenager. For Josie, it’s still happening well into her 20’s (and Sam in his 30s). The slowly blossoming romance between Josie’s co-workers Anita and Gus also is a “first” for each of them in middle age. The often under-rated David Arquette truly shines as the sweet, former high school jock whose plans for a pro baseball career have fizzled out and left him searching for purpose in his life. The pitch perfect comic timing (and chemistry) between him and Barrymore during their scenes together is especially appealing.
Though it wasn’t especially pointed out at the time of the film’s release, in our post #MeToo and Harvey Weinstein rape charges era, a few disturbing elements stand out about the film. One is that Josie’s 30 year old English teacher is developing a crush on a student he believes to be 17 years old, however mature and evolved beyond her years she may seem to be. He brazenly flirts with her repeatedly, to the point that it is even noticed by other students, who mock them the same as if they were any other typical lovestruck high school couple (which in and of itself is also a little disconcerting). Sam and Josie even go on a romantic ferris wheel ride where he discusses the relationship frustrations he is having with his current girlfriend. Though it is an incredibly endearing scene, it is also one which should never happen between a student and teacher. Another is Josie leading Guy, an actual 17 year old, to fall for her and take her to the prom. Granted the relationship never becomes physical and it doesn’t necessarily lead one to be on standby to yell “Statutory Rape”, but it does have somewhat creepy undertones.
Again, the reason this is overlooked is largely due to Barrymore’s charm. Watching the klutzy, self-deprecating and sweet Josie blossom into a more confident woman, you can’t help but let it all slide and just revel in the happy ending where Josie finally gets her career-changing scoop, the boy of her dreams and her first real kiss.
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Greg Lewis is a pop culture and entertainment vulture. As a freelance writer living in LA, he’ll never run out of material, even if he runs out of Xanax.