Before watching the movie:
I’ve always been only very vaguely aware of this movie, and I’ve expected to get around to it for at least the last few years when I realized it was available to me. It’s one of those that gets mentioned a lot without any of the content really getting referenced, so all I had in mind until I looked up the summary was that it was some mildly successful romcom.
The premise is actually that the main character is an established adult journalist ordered to pose as a high schooler for a story, and that somehow sets up a love story. All I had expected until I read that was that she’s also never had such a relationship before, which is not all that unique for a love story.
After watching the movie:
Shy, bookish Chicago Sun-Times copy editor Josie Geller is always suggesting investigative stories to her supervisor in the hope of getting a journalistic assignment, but he keeps telling her she’s best suited for the job she has. However, the eccentric editor in chief, in the habit of coming up with weird ideas and assigning them to whoever he’s looking at in staff meetings, decides that the answer to his realization that he doesn’t understand his kids’ world is to embed somebody undercover as a fake high school student, and cluelessly gives the story to Josie, who insists on not being begged out of it by her boss. A social outcast her first time in high school, showing up out of step with fashion does not help her get started this time, and she retreats into the same meek patterns she had back then, and is only able to connect with anybody because Aldys, a nerdy girl, invites her to join the math club. Josie is also very close to her dreamy, down to earth literature teacher Sam. But the rest of the school only accepts her when her washed up brother Rob admits himself as a fake student to try to get a second chance at a baseball career and starts talking Josie up to all the cool kids. As Josie’s boss tries to pressure her into a salacious story exposing Sam’s inappropriate relationship with her as a supposed student, Josie drifts apart from her new friends to join the popular girls that are now recognizing her as a trendsetter.
While there are plenty of stories of adults getting a second chance at their school days, it seems they’re usually either openly adults forcing their way into the system (Back to School, Billy Madison) or they’re put into a teenaged body through some kind of magic (17 Again). While it’s of course kind of creepy to have 20-somethings posing as high school students, it’s also a bit refreshing to have the conceit be that nothing supernatural is happening, but the dramatic irony that nobody knows is maintained. It may actually be a little more plausible that a 25 year old can be disguised as a teenager with nobody suspecting the deception in a movie than in real life, because it’s actually really rare for actual teens to play teens instead of 20- or even 30-somethings. The creepiness is also mitigated by having a running motif of discussing disguises in Shakespeare and how they do exactly what they’re doing in this story.
The romantic subplot is a bit muddled by having both the main guy, the teacher, but also a heartthrob senior boy. I guess it’s important to have a dreamboat classmate to complete the high school experience, and yet it’s also important to have a guy she can actually end up with. It just would’ve been less confusing if he hadn’t seemed to take an actual romantic interest in Josie once she became popular and it actually became almost viable. She never tries to distance herself from his affection even though she’s still more interested in Sam, so it just comes off as her trying to have both, even though as long as the masquerade continues, she can’t actually have either.
I appreciated that Aldys has a backbone pretty much throughout. Josie may find her as a kindred spirit, but being shy and falling apart at bullying isn’t something Aldys has in common with Josie. It’s especially after Josie stands up the math club and Aldys breaks off the friendship that we get to see her standing up to the people who are trying to put her down, but all through the movie we see that Aldys is experienced in handling herself and never letting the haters see the effects of their cruelty. That does slightly take away from the stakes of the climax, where it’s much more important for Josie as a character when she chooses to save Aldys from a prank over keeping everything she wants, but ultimately it’s not Aldys’s story, it’s Josie’s.
This is a surprisingly highbrow and well crafted romantic comedy, which makes it both surprising it did well, but also not at all surprising it endured. This is very richly textured and covers a wide variety of relatable experiences in a very thoughtful way. I wish it had been highly recommended than just being a title out in the ecosystem.