Screen Teens

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Lucy is a good girl-high school honors student, dutiful daughter and lonely virgin. So in her bedroom, the night before she is to give her valedictory address, she does what any prim miss played by Britney Spears would do: she parades in her briefs (which couldn't be briefer) and karaokes her pristine butt off to Madonna's Open Your Heart.

With the recent Australian and New Zealand release of Crossroads, Hollywood joins mtv, radio stations and the magazine industry in surrendering to this pop-cultural juggernaut: all Britney, all the time. In the U.S., the 20-year-old's faux-sexy, Barbiefied prettiness is as pervasive a presence in homes as the Pope's used to be in Italian ones. Now Spears joins Aaliyah, in the current Queen of the Damned-the film the R.-and-B. star made just before her death-and Mandy Moore, in the upcoming A Walk to Remember, in a trifecta of teen queens turned screen queens. Girl power is back in the 'plexes, and this time it sings. Can the new batch of thrushes have the impact of Judy Garland, Betty Hutton, Lena Horne, Doris Day, Barbra Streisand, Diana Ross, Bette Midler, Madonna, Whitney Houston and Jennifer Lopez? (Not to mention a couple of crooners named Crosby and Sinatra.)

Three movies with pop-star leads could give some fizz to the current lackluster release schedule. On Hollywood's calendar, now is the time to put out films that aren't for critics, Academy members or people over 15. Or, in this case of the Britney and Mandy movies, guys. Crossroads and A Walk to Remember are old-fashioned chick flicks: one a gal-bonding movie, the other a love story very much like Love Story. Way back, these were prominent genres, giving juicy roles to a galaxy of female stars. Now women's pictures-or, in the current demographic devolution, girl movies-are so rare that when two or more appear within a month, we can hope it's the start of a trend back to a more gender-equal cinema.

Girl movies go against the grain of the recent Hollywood norm, which is that guys rule. To synopsize the prevailing wisdom: movies are about revenge; TV is about reconciliation. Reconciliation is also the theme of the typical girl movie; it traces parallel paths of self-discovery and fence mending. (A Walk to Remember and Crossroads have about a dozen of these I-forgive-you-oh-no-let-me-forgive-you-first scenes.) Audiences trained to expect a climax of bloody or comic revenge have to settle for hugs and smiles and maybe a tear. To enjoy these films is to get in touch with your inner softie. And that doesn't fit today's jock-and-schlock film climate, where "nice" is the tiniest niche.

Unlike the Britney and Mandy movies, Aaliyah's fits into the prevailing guy mode: a threnody of "sex, blood and rock 'n' roll," in the words of its lead vampire, Lestat. (Director Michael Rymer's film is based on an Anne Rice novel.) While Lestat, played with a handsomely snaky androgyny by Stuart Townsend, wows the kids with his rock-star act, the ancient Queen Akasha waits to be roused from her slumber. Waits for most of the movie: Akasha-Aaliyah doesn't show up until the last third, by which time she has received a bigger buildup than the sled in Citizen Kane.

She's worth the wait. Bedecked in beads, with a posture that speaks of breeding and arrogance, she makes a grand entrance and a great impression. And she spits out her lines ("Mortals. They mean nothing to me now. They are only food") with a glaring regality. She's a real shrew and a true queen. This, we realize, is star quality-realize with a sigh, since Aaliyah died in a plane crash last August at age 22. The promise she shows here is thus both satisfying and sadly tantalizing.

Moore, just 17, has screen appeal and poise as well. She and co-star Shane West (a regular on Once and Again) make A Walk to Remember something very close to convincing. No small feat, since Adam Shankman's film is stubbornly counterrevolutionary. In this teen pic, love is more important than sex; parents are sometimes wiser than their kids; Christian faith is to be admired, not reviled. You needn't prize piety over rebelliousness to find the movie's truculent decency refreshing, especially when it is played with such beguiling naturalness.

Jamie (Moore) is a teen even straighter than the Britney character in Crossroads. This minister's daughter sings in the church choir, carries a Bible, buckles up for safety. She also has a spectacularly frumpy wardrobe. Of course she's mocked by the cool kids, including Landon (West), whose punishment for a stupid prank is that he must act in the school play. That's where he hooks up with Jamie. A grudging mutual respect and so much more ensue.

The inevitable big kiss is remarkably chaste; no one has sex with a dessert. But not every teen film has to be American Pie; now and then Hollywood can serve puff pastry, and this one is on the tasty side. Moore, who went attractively brunet for the role, delicately shows Jamie's roiling emotions. When pop-star status deserts her, she might become a movie star, or something more precious: a fine actress.

As for Britney, she is certainly comfortable on camera, and her Stepford radiance is easy on the eyes. But Tamra Davis' movie stinks. It's about three Louisiana teens-the geek, the freak and the princess-and Britney plays the geek. Escorted by a dude with 'tude (Anson Mount), they go West in search of stardom, performing their sassy act in bars and discovering that sisterhood is booty-full.

On the way from La. to L.A., the gals trip over plot twists that belong in a much darker film (the fiancˇ of one girl is the rapist of another; the hero's sister was abused by her father). And there will be giggles aplenty at the scene in which our brainy heroine writes a poem with the line, "I'm not a girl, not yet a woman" (which just happens to be a recent Spears hit). But Crossroads delivers on the expected climax: Britney's first kiss with an adult male. It's a Saint Bernard slobberer of a smooch-the tsunami of wet kisses.

There's really no reason to get agitated about Britney's generic music or dreadful new film. Her primary function is not musical or cinematic but educational: to instruct girls in the complex lessons of peer envy and to get 12-year-old boys on the fast track to concupiscence. Similarly, Crossroads, whose $10 million budget was put up by Spears' label, is less a movie than a multimedia branding, an extension of the Britney franchise-a marketing tool, exactly like the singer's Pepsi spots, though without their craft, verve or production values.

So any carping, by reviewers or audiences, is beside the point. We don't have to love the product; we just have to pay for it. Pay up to the Princess of Pert.

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