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The lurid tag line for Stacy Cochran’s Boys, “No one stays innocent forever,” is also an apt description of Lukas Haas’ career trajectory. Made famous as the impossibly cute little boy in Witness, he’s now old enough to have truly bad posture and star as a romantic lead opposite Winona Ryder. Still, Haas’ 18-year-old in Boys is very like the 13-year-old he played in Rambling Rose, prurient enough to wheedle the family maid into giving him a lesson in female anatomy and precocious enough to declare afterward, “Without a doubt this is the most fascinating experience of my life.” But in a movie that posits Winona Ryder as “the older woman,” it hardly matters if Haas seems a little immature.
Many a filmmaker has said that he learned how to make movies by watching Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane. There are, of course, many more possible guides available to those learning how not to make movies. A tour de force of unresolved plot elements, Boys is one such film. Scripted by Cochran, the movie is based on James Salter’s eight-page short story, “Twenty Minutes.” The tale, which Cochran calls “pretty bleak” in the film’s press kit, has a single character and an unhappy ending. For the film version, however, the director added a second lead character and remade the story as—what else?—a redemptive romance. Patty Vare (Winona Ryder) is a fast-living floozy with something to hide. John Baker (Lukas Haas) is a disaffected senior at a boys boarding school. Their paths cross when Patty is thrown from her horse and discovered unconscious in a field by a pair of underclassmen. The younger boys appeal to John for help, and he brings the disoriented young woman back to his dorm room.
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Of course, rumors of a girl in a boys’ school (played in the film by St. John’s College in Annapolis) create considerable excitement. When Patty takes refuge in the bathroom and must change her wet shirt, adolescent and preadolescent onlookers alike are struck dumb by the presence of breasts. (Happily, Patty went horseback riding in a black lace bra.) John is as intrigued by her mystery as he is by her partial nudity. (Well, almost.) It’s clear that the young man has a colorful imagination, because he writes a story about decapitation for creative writing class when the assignment called for “a domestic scene in the style of John Cheever.” John’s unexpected status as keeper of the girl provokes jealousy and confusion among his friends, all of who seem a bit too rattled by the presence of a female for a group of 18-year-old guys. John has a duo of pals appropriately situated at either end of the Gen-X fashion continuum: Longhaired Phillips (adorable and slightly closer to legal age Wiley Wiggins of Dazed and Confused fame) and Van Slieder (Russell Young), who sports the Weiland look with cropped and inexpertly dyed hair.
Both members of the nascent couple have problems. John, for his part, delivers the obligatory “I don’t want to do what my square Dad does” monologue early in the film; his father is an uncompromising bully who is pressuring him to enter the family business. (John Sr. is depicted as a Southerner, presumably because there is no quicker way to get across old-fashioned wrongheadedness. He has a Southern accent—though his son does not—and made his money from the Southern grocery store chain Piggly Wiggly.) Patty’s difficulties are a bit showier. In a series of flashbacks, she re-experiences a wild night with Bud Valentine (Skeet Ulrich), a major-league ballplayer she picks up at a drunken party. (Poor Ulrich can also currently be seen in The Craft, in which he is also cast as a sleazeball. A career of such roles presumably unfurls before him.) Neither John’s growing pains nor Patty’s big secret, though, are especially convincing.
The same is true of their affair. Though Ryder is meant to symbolize the allure of the experienced woman, the romance between Patty and John is more like May-June than May-September, at least in part because the actual age difference between Ryder and Haas is negligible. They resemble each other physically as well; slight, hipless Ryder is as boyish a girl as anyone could hope for. In one scene, Patty borrows a set of clothes from John, all of which, including his shoes, apparently fit her just fine. Ryder and Haas look a lot like brother and sister and, indeed, Patty claims to be John’s sister when friends see them together in public. This particular aspect of their attraction is never explored, but it does assure that when the pair end up having sex in the grass behind a ferris wheel, it is psychologically suspect as well as unspeakably torrid.
Like many recent movies, the film has a soundtrack that tries so self-consciously to be cool that it’s grating. Featuring music by Compulsion, Scarce, Orbit, Sparklehorse, Railroad Jerk, Del Amitri, Lucid, Smoking Popes, Portishead, Supergrass, and Stone Roses, Boys is more convincing as an excuse for a soundtrack CD than it is as a movie. The film opens with the Cruel Sea’s styleless cover of the Zombies’ “She’s Not There.” (Don’t worry if you’ve never heard of the Cruel Sea. The elapsed time between bands becoming known for their original material and consequently being able to grant old tunes a hip legitimacy by covering them has now become so short that the process is being reversed.) Despite their efforts to stay on top of “what the kids are listening to,” the filmmakers make a particularly egregious musical misstep; the background tune for the film’s carnival sequence is Squeeze’s “If I Didn’t Love You,” a song that came out in 1980, when the film’s stars were probably watching Sesame Street and teething, respectively.
The film’s ending continues the recent trend of pilfering ideas from The Graduate. In this case, it’s the final scene, in which Dustin Hoffman and Katharine Ross climb onto a city bus and make their getaway from conventional life. My determinedly unromantic mother talked me out of enjoying this scene at an early age by convincing me that they’d just keep going until they ended up at the municipal bus barn. Likewise, when Patty and John jump into an elevator just as the doors close, they seem to be jumping into nowhere; it doesn’t seem romantic, it just seems dumb. Which is about the size of it.CP