WARNING: Mild spoilers for a 20-year-old movie ahead:
As far as teen movies go, few can ever reach the pinnacle of perfection that is 10 Things I Hate About You (1999 dir. Gil Junger). There! I said it!
The film has everything: a well-adapted and modernized Shakespearean play, young Heath Ledger singing his heart out to Frankie Valli, the ever-impeccable Allison Janney in a perfect minor role, and Julia Stiles somehow looking hot in cargo pants. Even now, twenty years after its original release, 10 Things has yet to be dethroned from the top of many, many “must watch” lists.
Along with Clueless (1995), She’s All That (1999), O (1999), and Cruel Intentions (1999), 10 Things capitalized on the trend of classical literary adaptations that rose in popularity in the mid-to-late 90s to the early 2000s. (10 Things lead Stiles appeared in three Shakespearean adaptations in 1999 alone.)
But save for Clueless, most of these movies aren’t spared much thought, what with today’s booming film industry cranking out blockbuster after mega-blockbuster. In fact, romantic comedies, a staple of the cinema for that era, are nearly extinct as we knew them then. Simply put, times have changed since the late 90s. Our morals, our interests, how we perceive romance, our wardrobes for sure. And yet, 10 Things I Hate About You remains iconic.
A modernized twist on Shakespeare’s Taming of the Shrew, 10 Things follows high school student Kat Stratford as she’s pulled into the world of dating and popularity by her younger sister Bianca (Larisa Oleynik). Thanks to a rule imposed by their father, Bianca can’t date until Kat does. This doesn’t bode well for either of Bianca’s suitors who then pay the only student who isn’t afraid of Kat, Patrick Verona (Heath Ledger), to take her out. And in turn, this leads to the exact sort of comedy of errors you’d expect from the Bard.
At only eighteen, Stiles plays Kat with the sort of genuine world-weariness that is often so hard to capture on screen. Stiles’ Kat is loveable despite all her barbs because the audience is offered up an explanation as to why she is the way she is. This isn’t the “mean girl is mean just because” sort of bit, but a character who’s gone through some rough things and come out the other side jaded.
Leading opposite Stiles’ as Patrick is Heath Ledger, long before Brokeback Mountain and The Dark Knight. His performance leaves no question as to why someone so sharp-edged as Kat falls for him. Ledger is charming in a wholly genuine way while easily slipping in and out of Patrick’s layered facades. One minute he’s posturing, all masculine threat, before the act falters and he asks Cameron (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) if he’s a “pretty guy,” or dances along the bleachers to “Can’t Take My Eyes Off of You.”
The chemistry between all the actors, as well as the expertly woven plots and subplots, leaves the entire movie feeling like a treat. It’s the sort of movie you can’t help but smile as you watch. The jokes still land, the social commentary is still painfully relevant, and both Stiles’ and Ledger’s dimples are timelessly adorable. How unfair. But even then, despite each element of the movie only heightening the one before, how is it that a movie from the late 90s’ still remains such a cultural benchmark for a good teen movie?
For that, in part, we can thank the internet and the stemming of a self-aware culture that sprung from its often-terrifying depths.
While 10 Things came out long before anyone would ever dream of self-identifying on Twitter (created in 2006) with the bio “Thai food, feminist prose and angry girl music of the indie rock persuasion,” Kat Stratford, acerbic and independent, an outspoken feminist before it was cool, resonates now in a way that many of her peered protagonists simply don’t.
She’s witty and into alternative you’ve never heard of; she tears down Hemingway with feminist rhetoric; she kicks a boy who groped her in the balls. Kat Stratford of the 1990s is the sort of girl you’d want to be friends with on Twitter or Instagram stalk now. And that is part of the movie’s seemingly timeless appeal.
Despite being a twenty-year-old movie based on a nearly four-hundred-year-old play, 10 Things manages to align with our modern sensibilities. Sensibilities, mind you, that grown into an irrefutable zeitgeist of the 21st century, with the waves of activism and outspokenness only furthered by connectivity to people across the globe.
There is no “creepy in hindsight” romance a la Sixteen Candles or The Breakfast Club—a problematic trope which has further been brought to light by the #MeToo movement. Nor are there any uncomfortable implications, like that whole step-brother romance in Clueless or the student/teacher bit in Never Been Kissed. In one of the first scenes of the film, we get a bit of scathing commentary on modern activism and cultural appropriation that remains so painfully relevant, I’ve seen the quotes used in arguments online within the last year.
10 Things I Hate About You gives us characters we want to root for, characters we see ourselves in, and a love story that is still believable today. Not only does it do what its counterparts couldn’t by remaining in the current cultural mainframe, but I can’t see the film’s relevance disappearing anytime soon, not with lines like “I still maintain he kicked himself in the balls.”
C’mon. That’s classic.