2019 Film Essays

Everything But the Beak and Feet: ’10 Things I Hate About You’ at 20

Earlier this month, a Vice article sprung up, off the back of a hugely popular Twitter thread, proclaiming 10 Things I Hate About You to be a perfect film. As fluffy and throwaway as the discussion was, it’s kind of hard to disagree. Twenty years on from its release, the teen movie with the coolest soundtrack this side of Pulp Fiction (but, obviously, with much more ska) hasn’t aged a day. Sure, nobody has an iPhone, but who needs social media when the on-campus drama is downright Shakespearean?

From that very first needle-drop of the Barenaked Ladies’ classic “One Week,” seamlessly threaded into Joan Jett’s “Bad Reputation,” it’s clear this is super-cool territory. It’s the kind of setup that makes you want to tear the screen open and leap into Kat’s car just to be part of the action for a single moment. However, the initial, surprising slide of the focus from teenyboppers over to grumpy outsider signals that the cool kids aren’t the focus here. David Krumholtz’s Michael gives new student Cameron (a baby-faced Joseph Gordon Levitt) a quick tour of Padua High, pointing out each clique, but his observations have no bearing on the plot except to provide color commentary. 

The so-called beautiful people (or Plastics, or popular kids), barely feature. 

10 Things I Hate About You wastes no time situating itself in this incredibly well-realized high school environment, whether it’s the bustling quad, the antagonistic English class or the Prom poster being ripped off the wall (“Blasting Into 2000!,” it reads — oh god). Co-writers Karen McCullah and Kirsten Smith (who would go on to script Legally Blonde) don’t bother explaining who anybody is, or how each character fits into the greater social hierarchy. Instead, the action flits from location to location as everybody is introduced, mostly via pithy asides from their classmates (“Just a minor encounter with the shrew” Michael deadpans, in reference to Kat). This establishes both the setting and the main players in one entertainingly fell swoop. 

The film is technically a Shakespearean adaptation, but McCullah, Smith and director Gil Junger don’t feel the need to signpost this by having the kids do a play or something in the middle of it (no disrespect to the criminally underrated Get Over It, which does this to hilarious effect as spearheaded by the legendary Martin Short in the role of flighty drama teacher). Shakespeare features throughout, but only in casual nods and references, including the school itself, Padua being where The Taming of the Shrew is set. 

10 Things I Hate About You is wordy and quick-witted like Dawson’s Creek (which gets a funny shout-out) but not self-consciously so. The mostly young cast rattle off the dialogue like it’s second nature. The jokes are almost too quick, this being one of the all-time great re-watch movies. It gets funnier and more layered each time — take the running joke with poor ol’ Mr Chapin getting injured that requires a second viewing to properly land. Elsewhere, the hilariously dim “overwhelmed/underwhelmed” discussion has gained such cultural weight that it’s included in Total Film‘s monthly movie quote interview, “You Talkin’ To Me?” 

This is a smart film, and proudly so. One of the biggest shocks comes with the revelation that Bianca, dismissed by Michael as vapid and conceited, is just as smart as the rest of her peers (most brilliantly exemplified by her disgruntled face when the word “pensive” goes over Joey’s head). Nobody in this movie is one-dimensional. Each character has hidden traits, even if — in the case of Joey, for example — they’re not the nicest people overall. And, as with the best teen comedies — the classics: Clueless, Mean Girls; the modern upstarts: The DUFF, The Edge of Seventeen — the adults are all well-drawn characters in their own right, too. 

The cast is insanely high caliber, from Allison Janney as the horny guidance counselor (she also appears in The DUFF, funnily enough, as Mae Whitman’s hilariously unhinged mother) to Daryl “Chill” Mitchell as the terribly candid English teacher, and Larry Miller as the overprotective father who gets all the best lines (“Hell is just a sauna”). The grown-ups are accessories to the action, rather than driving the plot forward themselves, but they’re funny and real enough not to feel like set dressing. 

Although 10 Things I Hate About You’s co-stars wouldn’t all necessarily go on to do massive things (Andrew Keegan, who played Joey, was infamously a cult leader in California for a while), there isn’t a dud among the young cast. The dearly departed Heath Ledger is his charming best as the mysterious Patrick (“I heard he ate a live duck once”), Levitt and Krumholtz make for a fine, nerdy double act and Keegan is equal parts sleazy and pathetic. This is a decidedly feminist flick, though, and the women remain front and center throughout. 

As warring siblings Kat and Bianca, Julia Stiles and Larisa Oleynik have the kind of casually cruel relationship that suggests years of mutual torture. They spend much of the movie swiping at each other, unable or perhaps refusing to find common ground even when it comes to their domineering father, who punishes both for having the capacity to get pregnant young (if not the interest). What forces them together and — in rather triumphant fashion, brings down the dastardly Joey — is their realization that they’re actually not so different after all. This is memorably noted by their father, who admits he’s impressed that Kat’s suffer-no-fools attitude has rubbed off on her prim and proper little sister. 

The female actors are shot mostly barefaced, or with little makeup, emphasizing youth over sophistication. The styling is relaxed and cute, rather than outright sexy. Even when these kids party or head out to the big dance, there isn’t a lot of skin on show. The emphasis is on romance and courtship rather than sex, making Kat’s final act revelation about Joey that much more shocking. Still, she isn’t punished for it. She’s learned from her mistake and tries to use it to steer Bianca in the right direction. 

10 Things I Hate About You hits a lot of the typical teen movie beats — the Prom, the setup, the big party — but never in a cliched way, and never in the manner audiences have come to expect. There’s no makeover montage, and neither Kat nor Bianca has to change herself completely to be good enough for a man (there’s no shot of Kat in a floral dress gliding towards jock-y Joey, like Ally Sheedy’s heavily criticized de-gothing in The Breakfast Club). If anything, the opposite is true; Cameron has to learn French to get Bianca’s attention, and Patrick must suffer the indignity of being seen at a Letters to Cleo show to get close to Kat. 

Music flows through the veins of 10 Things I Hate About You, the soundtrack expertly curated by Richard Gibbs (who also tackled another music-heavy movie in the form of nu-metal vampire flick Queen of the Damned). From Letters to Cleo, Kat’s favorite band, to Save Ferris, who play at the Prom, the mood is bouncy, pop-punk and fun. Ledger’s big musical sequence, during which he sings “Can’t Take My Eyes Off You” is an all-timer, one of the great PDA moments in film. And not a drop of rain or a Hugh Grant sniffle in sight. 

Everything is incredibly considered, from the music choices to the jewelry (Patrick and Joey both wear several rings, each signifying their different class standings) to the book Kat is reading (Sylvia Plath’s Bell Jar, natch). It’s shot lovingly, too, from the camera pulling back to reveal Kat and Patrick slow-dancing at the Prom (while everybody else parties around them) to Michael driving straight over the hill towards the football pitch. Seattle, where the movie is set, and Tacoma, where it was predominantly shot, are brightly represented. The color palette is filled with oranges, yellows and deep reds. It feels like a summer movie even though it’s set during term time. 

The relationships in 10 Things I Hate About You are genuine and well-established, which is a big deal for a teen movie never mind a romantic-comedy with a devious setup at its heart. Even the most contrived pairing, of Michael and Kat’s friend Mandela, is sweetly introduced and sensitively underplayed. When they finally link up at the Prom, it’s not a massive moment the way Patrick’s big singalong for Kat is, but it still feels real. Michael isn’t just going for the only woman who’s left, he’s made a real effort to get close to Mandela and understand what she likes (Shakespeare, another nod) — the same way as Cameron and Patrick before him. The theme is of men being worthy of women, not the other way around.  

It’s worth noting, too, that when things do go to hell, it’s on a much smaller scale than audiences may be accustomed to. The big, dramatic showdown is over rather quickly and sorted out with ease. There’s no messing around because, in the end, Kat and Patrick really do care about each other. Neither character feels the need to trick the other or make them jealous. Kat makes her feelings clear, Patrick steps up to the plate, and that’s that. Happily, Bianca and Cameron’s courtship is even simpler as she realizes what a good guy he is once Joey shows his true colors. The wannabe popular kid doesn’t even ignore him in school, blushing and smiling as she passes Cameron in the hallway the day after their first kiss.

These kinds of choices seem like small fry, but when it comes to teen movies, they’re quite progressive. Even the undisputed greats like The Breakfast Club stumble when it comes to female representation, sexuality and plenty of other distinctly teenage issues. 10 Things I Hate About You doesn’t feel 20 years old because its central premise is still, to this day, incredibly universal. Kat continues to be a strong, complex character who learns not to soften, but to find a man who can keep up with her — particularly in a #MeToo world. The soundtrack still bangs. And even its closest modern comparison, Mean Girls, doesn’t have the guts to find the lead being told her upper middle class white girl point of view isn’t as unique as she thinks. 

The first word of spoken dialogue is “Hey!” — like viewers are being coaxed out of a stupor. 10 Things I Hate About You has that slap-you-in-the-face energy. Wake up, it shouts, teen movies can be smart, empowering, entertaining and funny all at once. And they really don’t get much better than this. 

Joey Keogh (@JoeyLDG) is a writer from Dublin, Ireland with an unhealthy appetite for horror movies and Judge Judy. In stark contrast with every other Irish person ever, she’s straight edge. Hello to Jason Isaacs.