A shockingly beautiful girl (Wilde) from a very wealthy family has traveled through high school as a distant presence, removed from any normal social interactions by her beauty, status, and the emotional consequences resulting from losing her older brother to cancer two years earlier. On graduation day, a blue-collar classmate (Pettyfer) who has admired her from afar for years, ends up talking to her briefly. This leads directly to a party at her house where these two ready tinders anxiously rub together and explode into a consuming, romantic fire.
In Franco Zeffirelli’s 1981 film adaptation of Scott Spencer’s bestselling novel, the love of the characters played by Brooke Shields and Martin Hewitt is dangerous: She is just 15 while he is 17. Shields truly was the poster child for inappropriate adolescent (and preadolescent) lust, having played a 12-year-old prostitute in Pretty Baby as well as starring in Tilt, Wanda Nevada, and The Blue Lagoon. Sizzling hot at 16, she was desirable, erotically packaged, and conventionally off-limits. Not that her real age should matter, but 23-year-old Wilde is not nearly the same forbidden fruit, especially since she is playing a 17-year-old here (though she does look 15), an age more appropriate for romance. Pettyfer, who is actually a year younger than Wilde, looks more like five years her senior, rather than 18.
Not to harp on petty details, but this film is so colossally tone-deaf and off-key in every way that its collection of jarring missteps almost carries it into the arms of perverse comedy. If the vanilla, homogenized, soap opera/TV commercial, teen-romance stereotypes had just been pushed a bit further, one could easily believe that this was meant as a send-up or even an avant-garde reimagining.
Whereas the romance in Zeffirelli’s original was almost frightening because of its passion and off-limits love, here the igniting element is a way too overprotective, class-prejudiced, domineering father (Greenwood), who, having never recovered from his son’s death, wants to completely control his daughter’s life. He is the most demented character, far more off-kilter than the lovers or their affair.
The structure of the narrative action is abrupt and random, and includes a dance contest at a party that is both mind-boggling and absurd. The dialogue sounds like an assemblage arbitrarily constructed from random lines from similar works. Much of the film is told in mystifying and occasionally disturbing close-ups, suggesting parody more than evoking emotional resonance.
She’s too pretty, his head is too big, her father is too weird, and his father (Patrick) looks way too much like her father. Filled with artificial though blunted melodrama, it is perversely fascinating, much like watching a car wreck. Not surprisingly, it includes one.