Not everyone can be good at everything. Zoe Hogan is a brilliant playwright and a sharp thinker, but, as it transpires, she is completely terrible at knowing how good Drew Barrymore’s Never Been Kissed (1998) is.
Zoe’s take: ‘Never Been Kissed is incredibly turgid. I thought I might rewatch it but then I watched a 90 second video of the speech I want to use from it on YouTube and was like NO that is plenty for me actually.’
WRONG. Drew Barrymore’s 1998 high-school rom-com Never Been Kissed is flawless, meaning it is without flaws.
Let’s start with the 30 second teaser trailer on IMDB. Even this is a slice of pure poetry. On the basis of this alone, I was ready to give the movie 5-stars – but because I am a professional, I didn’t stop there.
Finally, I dove in and watched the entire film.
This is the kind of due diligence and care for detail that, some might say, would have behooved the scriptwriters and editors of Never Been Kissed. I wouldn’t say that, obviously, and frankly, there is no room for that kind of snark in this review.
Never Been Kissed falls in the pantheon of late-90s teen films somewhere in the cluster of Cruel Intentions, 10 Things I Hate About You and She’s All That. Where Cruel Intentions and 10 Things both had rich, complex plots drawn from classic novels or plays, and She’s All That had the ugly-duckling-become-swan storyline and Freddie Prinze Jr’s brooding frosted tips, Never Been Kissed has, basically, Drew Barrymore, working her ass off to bring every bit of charisma she has to keep the ship from going under.
We begin with a woman standing alone on a baseball pitch, facing a huge crowd, and Drew Barrymore’s narration: ‘You know how in some movies, they have a dream sequence, only they don’t tell you it’s a dream? This is so not a dream. It wasn’t supposed to be like this. I was just trying to do my job! And then… things happened. Life happened. And now, I’m here.’
Having already watched the Youtube clip ‘Never Been Kissed 5/5 Movie CLIP – Finally Kissed’ (2 mins 42 seconds), I have some inkling of what this flash-forward sequence is setting up – and I’m excited! Excellent work, screenwriters Abby Kohn and Marc Silverstein.
Suddenly, we flash back several months to several months ago, where we see dorky Drew Barrymore introducing herself as ‘the youngest copy editor at the Chicago Sun Times.’ She’s uptight and driven – but disrespected, including by her own assistant.
I don’t know what the fuck the deal is with this character, but whatever it is, he’s working it.
Her boss, rumpled news editor John C. Reilly, and her colleague, office harlot Molly Shannon, both want what’s best for Josie – but they don’t think she should be a reporter, because ‘you’re not wild enough.’
There’s a whole setup designed to hammer home the fact that Drew Barrymore is lonely, anxious, desperate to fall in love with a man who’ll sweep her off her feet, and ohmyfuckinggod it’s boring. As quickly and perfunctorily as the movie goes through the motions of giving Drew Barrymore a character arc to go through, it feels like it goes forever.
The only saving grace here, as in most of the flick, is that Drew is face-acting like a crazy person. She never does just one expression when five or six will do. Turn the sound down, and it’s like watching someone constantly trying to contain a sneeze.
(NOTE: This is also a film you can happily watch with the sound down.)
There’s an editorial meeting of the newspaper where the publisher arbitrarily announces that he wants someone to go undercover as a high school student for a semester to write an ‘undercover feature’ on what the kids are up to. 30 seconds later, Drew Barrymore is pulling up outside a high school.
This is probably a canny move on the part of screenwriters Abby Kohn and Marc Silverstein. You’ve got a great plot conceit for your high-school rom com – a 25 year old goes back to high school undercover and gets a second chance to be cool! There’s just one problem: it makes no fucking sense.
You could either: (a) work with it to try and give it a faint sheen of logic, to win us over as audience members by acknowledging that we may have doubts, and assuring us that although we’ll have to suspend our disbelief to enjoy the story, at least the work is internally consistent, and we won’t be subject to 90 minutes of inane plot drift you, or (b) just steamroller through the plot setup asap and get to the high school payoff before we have time to ask what the fuck is going on.
You can rationalise this one of two ways:
1. The Chicago Sun-Tribune newspaper has eerie powers, the kind of sinister influence that means when they approach a high school principal and say ‘You’re going to enroll an adult woman in your high school for a semester right now despite the fact that she’s on record as graduating from a local high school seven years ago,’ the implied threat hangs so heavy in the air that the words ‘both hands fed finger by finger to a bear by members of the Chicago cabbage mafia’ don’t even need to be said out loud, or
2. American high schools are too broke to afford a principal, or any other staff member who might notice or object to the fact that a random stranger has started showing up to the campus every morning and sitting in class smiling brightly
Drew Barrymore arrives at school to a healthy soundtrack of Jimmy Eat World, one of the many timeless acts on the soundtrack. (Later on there’s a bit where the kids all get super starstruck by a mention of the Big Bad Voodoo Daddys. They were a… ska…? band?)
The fish-out-of-water effect of a 25 year-old going to high school is only slightly undercut by the fact that all of Drew Barrymore’s fellow high school students are played by actors in their mid-30s.
The fellow student characters are as bland as clear water. I didn’t realise until the credits that Jessica Alba and Leelee Sobieski both play significant roles – they are so boring it’s hard to pay attention to them even while they’re on screen.
Jessica Alba / Marley Shelton are literally in the foreground centre of this picture, but your gaze keeps sliding off her and focusing on the badass bro with the kind eyes to the right, and wondering what he’s up to 20 years later, if he’s happy with how his life turned out
In Drew Barrymore’s first class she meets an angry teacher who says sarcastically, ‘well I’m sorry I forgot to take my hot flush medication today!’
Some might say that this is a mediocre example of the awkward oversharing teacher trope which Tina Fey pulled off to perfection five years later in Mean Girls. Those that look deeper can see that Never Been Kissed is playing the longer game. By deliberately being kinda shit, NBK is preparing the ground for Mean Girls to excel.
Like John the Baptist clearing the way for Jesus of Nazareth, Drew Barrymore is the proto-Lindsay. In so many ways.
In the next class, English teacher Michael Vartan from Alias gives the camera his best smokey gaze and introduces himself to Drew. Drew does her 50-expressions-at-once thing and it’s on. 18 minutes in and the romance arc has kicked in, that’s the only storyline I’m really paying attention to from here on out.
There is a whole side-thing where Drew also has a crush on a popular student, because he reminds her of a boy she had a crush on when she was a teenager, and there’s the makings there of a great love triangle, but the film kinda shoots the legs out from under itself because clearly Michael Vartan is (a) who Drew Barrymore is going to end up with, and (b) the film exhausts itself trying to bestow him with charisma, like in the scene where he plays ice hockey in front of his whole english class.
I appreciate his fresh-faced charm and sincere love of communicating the themes of Shakespeare plays to the kids, but he ain’t exactly stirring anything deep within me.
In the first half of the film, Drew Barrymore is unpopular. She befriends Leelee Sobieski and a gang of nerds, and hangs out with her brother, aka David Arquette, who has also never gotten over his high school baseball days, who really cares, less of this fluff pls
The only interesting scenes in this whole chunk are the heated flirtation scenes between Drew Barrymore and her English teacher. This, surely, is not how a high school movie is meant to go?
I thought, and correct me if I’m wrong, that a high school film was a chance to show a whole bunch of highly stereotyped student characters in a tightly wound ecosystem, driven by a series of social rituals (the sports event! the house party! the school play! the prom!). This film doesn’t even have a ‘who’s who in the zoo’ scene at the beginning, which is my favourite part of any high school film – where a wise insider explains to the newcomer the inner workings of the school system.
I don’t want a realistic depiction of life in high school (christ, can you think of anything worse?), I want a glossy, ramped up, vividly depicted micro-society as arcane and baroque as the goddamn Medicis: is that too much to ask?
I literally have no idea who any of these fucking kids are.
At 40 minutes in there’s a concert sequence featuring Ozimatli, who appear to be a reggae outfit (including the unnecessary record-scratching DJ in the background that was compulsory for bands in the late 90s). They look about as comfortable as a jam band performing a set on a Hollywood soundstage always looks. I hope it worked out for them.
(If memory serves me correctly, I wandered past a set these guys were playing at an Australian music festival about a decade and a half ago – they seemed happy with their lot.)
Drew meets her english teacher Michael Vartan at the gig (why is she at the gig? what is this gig? what is happening? did I blank on this bit of the plot, is there even a plot) and his girlfriend. In order to clear space for Drew and Michael to get together later in the film, we have to establish that his girlfriend is a real bitch, which is demonstrated by the fact that she expresses her dislike of Ozimatli and mid-tempo reggae ska in general.
MICHAEL VARTAN’S ARBITRARY GIRLFRIEND: ‘I’m sorry, I can’t even think in here! No offence, I know you love this stuff, I’m just hoping you get it all out of your system before you move to New York! My firm has season tickets to the Met.’
This is strong, clear dialogue that communicates character – everyone, take note.
Perplexingly, the other school girls have a whole suite of choreographed dance moves. They don’t have any lines of dialogue. It is unclear whether they have characters. What is happening. Does it matter. How long has this film been going on.
Drew sits down with some cartoon rastas, they give her a hash brownie. Now she is up on her feet dancing with Ozimatli. It’s… not great.
It’s kinda depressing that they brought in a stunt double just for this single doing-the-splits visual gag. Still, at least someone got paid out of this scene.
There’s a whole joke about the fact that she has the word ‘loser’ on a stamp on her forehead, which is pretty woeful, but then, how you gonna stay mad at this film when Drew is giving it these faces?
The midpoint of the film is a dark low: Drew Barrymore flashing back to her awful high school prom when she was egged by her supposed prom date, and then Drew Barrymore in the present day, running through the corridors in a state of trauma listening to Madonna’s Like A Prayer.
FACT: I’ve heard Like A Prayer a million times, but always on the radio or mixed in DJ sets – only recently did I listen to the whole song, and holy shit, the percussion breakdown in the last 90 seconds of that track is like a whole universe of joy unto itself.
Now for some reason her brother David Arquette also registers as a high school student and shows up to the school. He is instantly popular, because he eats a whole tub of chutney or something. I can’t tell. The student body are a faceless fucking mass in this film.
I’ve forgotten who Leelee Sobieski’s character is supposed to be in the 12 minutes since she was last on screen.
Now we are at a funfair. Possibly we’re listening to another Jimmy Eat World song. Drew Barrymore is on a ferris wheel, her english teacher Michael Vartan gets on.
What the fuck is this guy doing hanging exclusively with high school students?
But then, a propos of nothing, he launches into the best monologue in the whole film. Imagine these lines, delivered with the weary dedication of a professional actor who is fully aware of the dreck he has to work with, but is determined to do the best job he can in order to get the take done so everyone can go home on time.
(A kid from school says something stupid in the next car.)
MICHAEL VARTAN: You know I’d like to tell you that we all grow out of it, but it’s a lie. Some of us will always be rattling cages.
DREW BARRYMORE: Why do you do that?
MICHAEL VARTAN: I don’t know. You know what’s scary is that when you get older, it just gets more confusing. I mean, you know Laura, my girlfriend you met at the club? We’ve been going out for five years, and now, she wants me to move to New York. And – you know, I mean I should do it. You know, make the commitment, and grow up. I know we have our differences… You know what, I shouldn’t be talking about this stuff with you, I’m sorry.
DREW BARRYMORE: It’s nice to have someone to talk to.
MICHAEL VARTAN: Yeah, same here.
Now there’s the little cute moment where he says the line quoted in the trailer, you know he has feelings for her, and it’s totally naff, but honestly, it’s like Drew is being paid per facial-muscle-twitch, her face in this scene is worth the price of admission alone.*
*don’t ask how much I paid for admission
When I showed Rebecca this sequence of pics, she was like, ‘You’ve captured Drew Barrymore looking terrible!’ to which I had to say, no. She looks great here, and if you disagree, watch the scene yourself at Youtube Movie CLIP 3/5 Ferris Wheel Ride. for a lesson in what we in the performing arts industry call very good acting
In the next sequence, things are looking up. David Arquette makes it his mission to make Drew Barrymore cool at school. This skeleton appears, for no reason I can see.
The skeleton is never referenced in the script, which suggests to me that someone just brought it on set and left it there, and the director was like ‘yeah, sure, let’s have a skeleton, put it somewhere,’ and that’s how magic happens
There’s a really contrived sequence where Drew Barrymore’s harlot office colleague aka Molly Shannon shows up and gets brought in to run a sex ed class, and even before it starts you already find yourself mentally checking out and thinking about how much better Mean Girls did this, and you wonder, was Tina Fey watching Never Been Kissed in 1998, taking notes and making mental plans to utterly outclass it in every way in a few years’ time?
The ‘inappropriate sex ed class’ is a staple comedy item and it hurts me to see it done poorly
There’s some plot arc involving deciding on a prom theme, idk, I’m not really invested in it, but watching these actors work with the material gives me new sympathy for every cast in one of my plays who’s had to somehow give life to one of those poorly written sequences I’ve scribbled to get us from plot point A to plot point B.
This actor tho is having the time of his life.
Drew Barrymore suggests a new prom theme ‘MEANT FOR EACH OTHER: FAMOUS COUPLES THROUGHOUT HISTORY.’ It’s unclear whether this is a good idea or not, but who cares, the production crew have invested all the time that the scriptwriters didn’t spend on writing interesting characters, on costume and makeup.
Drew Barrymore is now friends with the popular girls, and flirting with english teacher Michael Vartan by playfully dabbing his cheek with paint while he does the same back at her (in reality: english teacher Michael Vartan would be in jail for this).
Also there’s a whole gag running through whereby english teacher Michael Vartan keeps making references that are too old for the kids, but which Drew Barrymore gets – but given the references are 20 and 25 years out of date respectively, the jokes don’t exactly land with stunning force
There’s some scenes where the girls buy new clothes and there is mad emphasis on the PVC pants, as timeless as the pop punk / ska soundtrack
Basically it’s a montage of pure pleasure, the joys of being a useless teenager.
I fucking love fakeass shots of well-dressed beautiful teens in the rich buttery light of a Hollywood soundstage played by actors in their 30s.
In comparison, actual real teenagers: no good.
Another moment from the trailer:
GENERIC TEEN CHARACTER (to Drew Barrymore): Guy is so totally clenching on you.
DREW BARRYMORE: Do I want to be clenched on?
We’re in the rich and joyful part of the movie where Drew Barrymore is beautiful and attractive and spouting teen gibberish. There’s a great moment in a newspaper interview where the publisher says ‘I WANT YOUR STORY IN TWO WEEKS’ – she’s been employed (full-time) by this newspaper to do undercover research for… half a year? And she’s expected to write a single story about it?
Anyway, in theory, this is the bit of the film where the stakes are raised, but believe me, the stakes in this movie are low, so lowwwwwww
Next is a house party scene. Standard Hollywood teen movie house party, notable mainly for this girl’s outfit.
There’s a little interesting thread in this film about both Drew Barrymore and David Arquette having potential hook-ups with 16 year olds while they themselves are 25. On paper: ethically gross. In practice: no 16 year olds were harmed in the making of this film, nor even, I assume, allowed anywhere near set.
(If I could be bothered, I could use IMDB and wikipedia to find out the age of the actors playing these kids, and prove my supposition that all these children are 30+, but there’s a limit to how deep I’m gonna dive even in a deep dive)
There’s an discussion to be had here around emotional maturity – when do we grow, how do we grow? – and the basic notion that Drew Barrymore and her bro are both emotionally stunted half-creatures because they are living and reliving the past.
Nostalgia is a toxic force, I really believe that. Remembering the past, honouring and loving the best bits of it, returning to the great music, art, experiences that shaped us – YES. But nostalgia feels like a warped version of that, and Never Been Kissed brilliantly illustrates how nostalgia can prevent us from becoming who we really are. I really think this.
The cheekbones actor playing the little popular dudebro asks Drew Barrymore out without kissing her, and we are at an emotional high-point in the film, it’s impossible for things to get any better. English teacher Michael Vartan is flirting with Drew Barrymore like there’s no tomorrow, what a time.
In terms of plot, I grant you, this is not a good film. In terms of mood: if all you signed up for was to watch some attractive actors walk around a set in good costumes with nice lighting and the camera in focus smiling blandly at each other: Never Been Kissed has you fucking sorted.
No YOU are a great writer, Abby Kohn and Marc Silverstein!
(fyi screenwriters Abby Kohn and Marc Silverstein are also responsible for masterpieces such as How To Be Single, He’s Just Not That Into You, an Amy Schumer film called I Feel Pretty, and ‘projects in development’ such as MEAN MOMS and THE EX GAMES)
John C Reilly unexpectedly tells Drew Barrymore to write about how english teacher Michael Vartan is clearly about to have sex with her. For some reason, in the last 20 minutes of the film, Drew Barrymore’s newspaper article is actually a concern of the story, and so she is given a moral dilemma – write about the teacher she wants to bone, or… don’t?
Drew Barrymore and her brother are dressed up to go to the prom, she is a historical figure of some kind? It’s unclear.
The high school prom includes kids dressed as the Village People, which is sorta great.
More pop punk! Girls dressed in bikinis. A gorilla suit. Arguments about who is barbie. Swans made of ice. Dancing. Again, it’s unclear what I’m supposed to take from this. There’s an ethical thing where David Arquette decides not to fuck the drunk 16 year old.
Leelee Sobieski is working with what she’s given.
The naming of the prom royalty sequence is a chance for the movie to hammer home that I don’t know who any of these fucking characters are
Side note: when I was in high school in Colorado in 1999, there was a legit political powerplay going on for who was gonna be prom king and queen. One serious contendor was a kid named Cory, a clean-cut blond kid with swept-back hair and a great chin and a good singing voice. The whole thing was so fucking absurd it did my head in, and all the more so because it means that Never Been Kissed has accidentally strayed into the area of being slightly accurate.
I don’t know anything about this band or this song, but if you’re gonna pick a tune to announce Drew Barrymore as prom queen, why not some bland late 90s rock pap? WHY NOT?
‘As is custom, the king and queen will now have their first dance’
As is custom.
(I didn’t go to the prom when I was in high school in America, but all my friends who did, aka the whole drama school nerd pack, informed me that while the prom king and queen were announced they made it their business to be out smoking weed in the carpark and yelling FOUR TWENTY at passing cars)
In an unexpectedly dope moment, Drew Barrymore drops some sweet Shakespeare while dancing with the dudebro – it’s exactly the right tone to strike at the right moment.
English teacher Michael Vartan is giving Drew Barrymore sex eyes while she dances with the prom king
I don’t exactly know what the plot arc with Leelee Sobieski is in this film, but she rips off her hazard suit and dances with the dudebro in a bright blue leotard
Drew Barrymore is dancing with english teacher Michael Vartan and they’re about to confess something to each other and then she realises she has to save Leelee Sobieski from having dogfood thrown at her and the music stops and Drew Barrymore is no longer prom queen because she stopped Jessica Alba from throwing dogfood at someone and this makes sense because
Now Drew Barrymore is giving a speech about how she’s an undercover reporter and how she hates school and hates popular kids and hates bullying
while Drew Barrymore gives Leelee Sobieski an amazing rap, note how the actors in the background of this shot are performing the emotion INTERESTED AND SINCERE. These are professionals.
‘There is a world out there bigger than prom, bigger than high school, and it won’t matter if you were the prom queen or the quarterback of the football team. Find out who you are and try not to be afraid of it.’
1. This is a poorly written speech, and it is beyond Drew Barrymore’s acting power, or the liberal use of sweeping strings, to make it into an emotional climax
2. There’s a real fascination in American popular culture with the idea of ‘BEING YOURSELF’. Just ‘be yourself, ‘be honest about who you are’, ‘don’t hide your true light that comes from within’, etc. On the surface it seems like good advice but it really breaks down under close examination when you consider that most people, especially young people (everyone, not just Americans) are shitheads.
A better moral imo would be something like, ‘TRY AND BE A BETTER PERSON THAN YOU ARE RIGHT NOW’ – which, in fairness, sorta seems to be what screenwriters Abby Kohn and Marc Silverstein are limping towards here
Drew Barrymore runs outside and is confronted by a newpaper colleague who says, ‘Tell me you got something on [english teacher Michael Vartan]’ while english teacher Michael Vartan is in earshot, which is screenwriter code for ‘We need to tidy this story arc up and we didn’t think about it in the first draft’
I love how, in this world, everyone casually accepts that a 25 year old has been a student for a full semester and doesn’t even think to question it. That’s the kind of accepting trust that I want to bring to the people in my life. If a friend tells me that they’re actually a Irish separatist in deep cover, I want to just nod, without any further questions.
I can’t be bothered doing the 50 screencaps again, but trust me, Drew Barrymore face-acts the hell out of being told to fuck off by english teacher Michael Vartan*
*who is weirdly more stressed about being lied to by a stranger than he is relieved about potentially nailing a student
John C Reilly is pissed because Drew Barrymore was revealed to be a student by the competitor newspaper. He’s not really screwed, tho, because as we see here, he’s a versatile actor and he can do anything he wants
Drew Barrymore finds an inner well of strength inside her and insists WE WILL HAVE A STORY, OKAY?
this is the motivation I need when staring at another uninspiring first draft. you have to believe you have a story worth telling. drew barrymore has your back here. You will have an amazing story.
There aren’t enough monologue voiceovers in this film, so grab on to them while they last – here, for example, shot of Drew Barrymore typing, and
DREW BARRYMORE: Someone once told me that to write well, you have to write what you know. This is what I know. I am 25 years old, and I have never really kissed a guy. Yes, it is embarrassing to share this with the world. But it would be hard to explain what I learned, and how I learned it, without sharing this humiliating history.
I received an assignment, my first, as a reporter, to go back to high school and find out about kids today. What I ended up finding was myself, and that high school hasn’t changed.
I lived a lifetime of regret after my first high school experience. And now, after my second, my regrets are down to one. A certain teacher was hurt on my path to self discovery, and, although this article may serve as a step, it in no way makes up for what I did to him.
To this man, you know who you are, I am so sorry. And I would like to add one more thing. I think I am in love with you. And so I propose this. As an ending to this article, and perhaps a beginning to the next chapter of my life, I, Josie Geller, will be at the state championship baseball game.
I will stand on the pitchers mound for five minutes prior to the first pitch. If this man accepts my apology, I ask him to come kiss me, for my first real kiss.
fyi this is crazy high stakes for a first pash. Why Drew Barrymore couldn’t be happy with necking on a doorstep in Palmerston outside Mel Hamblin’s 18th birthday party like the rest of us is a goddamn question for the ages, but there you go. Drama. Stakes.
for some reason leelee sobieski has shown up to the finale, this may make sense for her character depending on her character, I never really figured out who she is
Surging strings, crowd scenes, cheers, how much does it cost to hire this many extras in hollywood? I hope they filmed this on the same day they did the prom scene, and just got everyone to throw jackets on over their ridiculous prom outfits
That said, 5 mins is a long time to wait for basically one event. In theory, that’s enough time for all the character arcs to be wrapped up in a series of cutaways. In practice, there are no other character arcs, and so, it’s unclear what we’re going to do for this time. Except, perhaps… Drew Barrymore’s face?
We get some good Drew Barrymore face.
English teacher Michael Vartan shows up, late, and Drew Barrymore acts ‘heartbreak’ with her face, and the string section in the soundtrack hangs on one piercing heartbreaking note, forever, and then he walks out and the soundtrack changes to swelling triumph (and a Beach Boys song)
he kisses her and says, ‘Sorry I’m late. It took me forever to get here.’
Drew Barrymore looks up at him and says, ‘I know what you mean.’
& if you think I’m immune to a slow zoom out and fade with a couple having their first kiss in beautiful buttery hollywood light, you’re damn wrong.
It’s hard to tell what kind of future Drew Barrymore and english teacher Michael Vartan’s romance has, but given that he’s just come out publicly as a teacher who’s been on the verge of hooking up with a woman he thought was a 17 year old student, and she’s a reporter who’s taken 6 months to write a single newspaper article, I imagine that professionally, they’re in some amount of trouble.
I started out with the intention to write this review of the film as if it were perfect, with no criticism whatsoever, but then I forgot that plan and ended up just writing out the plot and trying to remember who any of the characters were, which is perhaps a metaphor for how the film was written?
According to the new ‘readibility analysis’ that WordPress provided me without my asking for it, 37.3% of the words in this review contain more than 20 words, which is ‘more than the recommended maximum’
Yeah well you know what, life is short, soon enough the sea calls us home, we’ll all cross that dark sunless river and be dirt in the ground, motes of ash in the breeze, particles washed down to sea and folded into rocks on the ocean bed and drawn down into the mantle, frankly, I’m not spending my brief hours on this earth trying to please a WordPress plugin, as Drew Barrymore once tearfully said, you will have an amazing story, and I believe her
if there is a moral then the moral is this