CLASS OR SEX? WHAT DO I DO?
by Michelle Said
My high school years were not all that special. I fell into a group of girls on the first day of school that would be my friends for the following four years. Two of those girls were my best friend for three years and then my worst enemies for one year, for reasons that are too complicated to go into here (we are still not friends). So, I was kind of stuck in a rut. I wasn’t cool, but I wasn’t a geek. I was a Quiet Girl, who was in a group of Quiet Girls, placed in the smart kid classes who tended to monitor classmates with a scowl. (I would later come to realize was a product of the chronic bitchface that was partially a result of my natural, unabashed skepticism, partially a result of bitchface genes, passed down from generations of bitchfaced Saids.)
I didn’t like most people in my high school. And yet, I wanted to be part of something bigger than myself. I wanted to put my mark on the school. And, most importantly, I wanted to have something on my college application that was more accomplished than, “Can recite in order every TRL #1 hit from the year 1998,” or “Has seen every episode of Daria more than five times,” or “Obscene knowledge of the Back to the Future trilogy.”
And so, bizarrely, I became editor of my high school yearbook.
This did not make me become loved, or recognized at all, actually. When I would interview people for the book, they would squint at me before saying, “Oh, we have Spanish together, right?” But it did allow me to become prematurely nostalgic for the ‘90s, a trait that has fully evolved into my current obsession.
When you are editor of your high school yearbook, it is, at the very least, your responsibility to include every single one of the two thousand odd people who have gone to your high school over the past school year. Every face should shine from glossy pages; every team, every club, every teacher must be featured. If you are somewhat more ambitious, you might be creative and try to distill every memory into an easily digestible form. You might condense personalities into superlatives, make sure there are enough pages at the end of the book for people to autograph, dab in a joke or two to make people laugh, but be prescient enough to make them not so obscure that you will know what they mean when you are in your middle age and can’t see your toes.
So when I rewatched Can’t Hardly Wait for this essay, the heavens opened up, I gazed up into the space above and I came upon an epiphany, which was, “Can’t Hardly Wait is better than any yearbook I could have ever made.” Maybe people who went to high school in the ’80s felt that way about John Hughes movies, or maybe that’s just the thing about Can’t Hardly Wait because everything is time capsuled so perfectly for me personally as a person who went to high school in the ‘90s. The fashions (chunky black heels, baby tees, fitted leather jackets, Seth Green’s entire wannabe boy band get-up), the music (I counted two Eve 6 songs in the first 15 minutes), the actors themselves (Jennifer Love Hewitt is the hottest girl in school, because of course she is, it’s the ‘90s).
The movie came and went pretty innocuously. Critics who couldn’t relate didn’t give it much of a second glance. It was sandwiched between a bunch of teen horror movies (Scream, I Know What You Did Last Summer) and updated Shakespearean classics (which was really a thing in the ‘90s: Romeo + Juliet, 10 Things I Hate About You). But it held a special place in my heart for its inclusiveness: if American Pie was for the dudes and She’s All That was for the chicks, Can’t Hardly Wait was for everybody.
Like The Breakfast Club, the movie deals in stereotypes. There’s the lovable, bookish nerd Preston (Ethan Embry, who has those puppy dog eyes that just kill me every time) who has the unrequited crush on high school princess Amanda (Jennifer Love Hewitt), who just got dumped by the school football star Mike Dexter (Peter Facinelli), a douche so powerful that he goes by two names all the time. Preston whines to his best friend, Denise (Lauren Ambrose), who is the Daria of the film, that he has gone four years without declaring his love for the object of his affection and staunchly declares that it will all change! That night! So of course it will! Oh, and there’s a Revenge of the Nerds plot headed by the school valedictorian. And we can’t forget the irrepressible Kenny (Seth Green) whose mission is to get laid before he starts college at UCLA in the fall.
They say here ninety-two percent of the honeys at UCLA are sexually active. Ninety-two percent of the women in Los Angeles at UCLA walking around going, “Class… or sex? What shall I do?” Ninety-two percent, yo! Hey, you know what that means? It means I gots a ninety-two percent chance of embarrassing myself. I roll up on that shorty be like, “What’s up yo?” she be like, “You don’t know 20 different ways to make me call you Big Poppa” cuz I don’t yo.
Kenny’s subplot became a movie on its own a year later, co-starring a warm apple pie.
The characters interact over the course of the film in separate but equal plotlines, with a single thread that is Preston’s crush on Amanda to lead us through. It’s like if Dubliners were placed in some generic American suburb and was also dumbed down a whole heckuva lot.
Did I just compare Can’t Hardly Wait to Dubliners?
These are the strereotypes that come naturally to the viewer because they’ve been pounded into our head for decades. Which came first? John Hughes movies or the “nerd, outcast, rebel, princess, jock” quintet? It’s a chicken-or-the-egg debate that would take a lot of research on my part to solve finally once-and-for-all, so I won’t. I’ll just say that we’ve been dealing in these characters for ages now.
When I watched Can’t Hardly Wait, it was like I was reliving my own final night of high school. Well, kind of. Actually, not at all. I had nothing to equal that kind of party at all, in that I didn’t go to a party. My family was moving a few days after I graduated so I had to go home to pack up my room. Unlike Preston, there was no Vonnegut class for me to take, no train to hop onto, no Yaz soundtrack or blossoming romance, only a six hour drive away to a new home and a new town due to my dad’s new job. I don’t remember anything about the night of graduation. I don’t remember anything at all.
For a former Keeper of Memories (read: yearbook editor), my memory is obscenely weak and ineffectual. I am notorious for receiving Facebook friend requests from profiles that tell me that we have 23 mutual friends in common and graduated from the same high school in the same year and drawing a blank. (I get updates from a dude named TJ that I am pretty much convinced is fooling everybody else in my high school but I’m too embarrassed to ask any of my friends.) High school now comes to me as a blur; I only remember snapshots. I remember climbing into the back of my friend’s truck and going off-roading in the hills by our high school, clinging on to the sides of the bed. I remember ditching class for the first time ever my senior year to go to the beach and digging my toes into the sand as I sipped a strawberry lemonade from Hot Dog on a Stick. I remember playing Never Have I Ever on ten fingers and struggling to defeat my equally prudish friend. The cool air on our cheeks as we walked up and down the green suburban hills. I remember these moments of my past, but only briefly, like a whisper in my ear.
In comparison to my hazy memories, watching Can’t Hardly Wait is akin to entering a time machine. The weird thing is, the movie utilizes actors that sparked feelings of nostalgia even for audiences who saw it in theaters when it was released. Ethan Embry, our lead, was the wide-eyed kid in Empire Records, Melissa Joan Hart in her cameo as Yearbook Girl had everybody gasping that Clarissa, Explainer of it All was being shoved around at a drunken party, Jerry O’Connell, who at that point was known simply as being the fat kid from Stand By Me (and also Sliders, if you’re a sci-fi geek like me), is plopped down as a has-been jock, and Donald Faison embodies Clueless by just standing there and grinning. Can’t Hardly Wait is a film released in 1998 that was already nostalgic for the ‘90s.
Does this make it a “good” movie? No. I guess not. It’s not a “good” movie — there’s no message to take away, there’s no deeper meaning. There’s no symbolism and the stories are kind of mushed up in a haze. The good guy gets the girl, the jock and the nerd find a drunken truce together, the two misfits “work out their differences” (read: bone). So if someone were to ask me what Can’t Hardly Wait is about, I would say, “It’s a movie about a party on the last night of high school.” But that’s not what it’s really about. It’s really about me. Or it’s about what I didn’t have. To this day, I remember Can’t Hardly Wait more clearly than I remember any party I went to in high school. I could start a whole other essay on how pop culture is ruining us, obfuscating our memories and killing our brain cells, but, truth be told, I like it better this way.
Michelle Said did not write “Denise Fleming is a tampon” on your locker.