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Is there anyone so obsessed with that high school Holy Grail, the prom, obsessed with its theme and decorations, with its plethora of fashion choices, with its juvenile, anything’s-possible glamour, with the riveting question of who—oh, who—will be named prom queen as a Hollywood screenwriter on the far side of 30 who never attended his own?

That’s not entirely fair. No-longer-daisy-fresh screenwriters have plenty of other concerns—they are also consumed by questions of coolness and popularity, fervent believers in the life-changing makeover, and captives of communities based on ferociously divided and protected hierarchies in which they themselves feel turfless if not worthless. How else to explain the onscreen plethora of ugly duckling/Cinderella stories sharing assumptions foreign to anyone who has so much as driven by a high school? From Pretty in Pink to Disturbing Behavior to She’s All That to 10 Things I Hate About You to Never Been Kissed, every campus is populated by the same stock cliques of stoners, jocks, nerds, hotties, Trekkies…Say, why don’t the groups from all those high schools get together and form their own schools—Rasta High, Fullback Academy, Calculus Central, Barbie Plaza?

All right, no more questions. But I do have a statement to make: Contrary to what the script of Drew Barrymore’s Never Been Kissed says, the whole freaking school, including the faculty, does not threaten to riot over the year’s prom theme. Designations like “homecoming queen” are popularity contests, and therefore the miniskirted bitch brigade never makes the running. And, oh yeah—for the millionth time, chicks who look like Barrymore and Leelee Sobieski do not pass unnoticed, much less get harassed, by boys of any age. Dogs they may occasionally be, but blind most guys are not.

Speaking of Guys, how that particular wet-lipped, sparrow-chested wraith Guy Perkins (Jeremy Jordan) became the hottest male property at South Glen South High School is a puzzlement. Perhaps the girls of South Glen felt a lack of wispy boy presence only a wannabe mid-’90s Brit-rocker could fulfill. Nevertheless, Josie Geller (Barrymore, radiant as the sun under bad makeup and worse hair), the youngest female copy editor at the Chicago Sun-Times, senses again the debilitating infatuation that plagued her in her high school years when, posing as a student for an undercover report, she first catches sight of Guy. Tormented by memories of her first time in teen purgatory, the former “Josie Grossie” is determined not to relive the past. Armed with all the wrong clothes and an off-putting combination of cringing obeisance and jackhammer friendliness, she tries to blast her way into the cool set, who react with forgivable disdain.

Absorbed briefly into the accommodating math-geek clique, headed by Sobieski, Josie decides that even if they’re nice, there’s no paper-selling scandal there. Finally, her effortlessly cool but loser brother, Rob (David Arquette, whose small-time career has made him loose, fearless, and totally charming), mentors Josie in cool; she ditches the first-lady hairstyle and attains her fondest wish: to join the mall-rat pack.

No 25-year-old would value the acceptance of airheaded bimbos in halter tops (indistinguishable from the same in Jawbreaker—the good news being that the world can accommodate two Rose McGowans), but Josie believes that it’s payback for the horror of her real high school years, rendered here in flashback. Never Been Kissed is a cavalcade of epic humiliations, piled on with the kind of remorseless extravagance that indicates that self-flagellation isn’t just for saints anymore. Not only does it hint at some extrascriptular subtext—projection, anyone?—but the nasty affronts keep the focus firmly on our star. After all, the whole school is fixated on Josie; they work much harder at paying her attention, negative though it is, than they would just ignoring her.

Seventeen is no fun, I know, but by 25 a girl has to earn her geekdom. It’s hard to blame the tarty South Glen queens for wondering what the hell connection Josie thinks she has with them. But it’s easy to blame the school’s only teacher (so it seems) for falling for a student. That queasy-making subplot becomes the film’s point, as socially retarded Josie figures out that Guy’s turnaround was facile—you think?—and makes a big, media-fueled play for the gorgeous English teacher (Michael Vartan) who has expressed moony, halting interest in her. If the guy doesn’t seem like a predator, wait until he feels betrayed by her lies. But you told me you were 17! How can I ever trust you again?

Barrymore is luminous and cutely puffy as usual, and her adorable lisp does fun things with lines like, “You don’t think I could grab a bullth ballth?” But if she’s a great writer trapped in a copy editor’s job, how come her big story contains careless modifier slip-ups (“A geek to the core, my childhood years…”)? This is a plot that the new-wave teen comedy Just One of the Guys pulled off with much more style, and even the wrongheaded Peggy Sue Got Married packed its one-more-chance premise with thoughtful maunderings. The ending does manage to be moving even if it is bullpucky of the first water—with her story, Josie turns herself into a media celebrity and the whole town, whose feelings about her are unclear (Didn’t she fling Alpo on those cool girls? Is the paper’s editor not a very busy man?), gathers to cheer on her first real kiss. The best thing about the movie is its closing credit sequence, which flashes the dreadful high school photos of the cast and chief string-pullers next to their names.

It’s a shame that Barrymore executive-produced this shoddy mess that ill displays her talents—it can’t hold a candle to the demented but winning Home Fries. If Never Been Kissed has any lasting value, it will be as a laughable style moment preserved. Barrymore can pull this thing out of the time capsule 15 years from now for a remake of The Wedding Singer set in the ’90s—Caesar haircuts, capri pants, feather boas, and all.CP