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Dustin Putman

Dustin's Review
Here on Earth (2000)
3 Stars

Directed by Mark Piznarski
Cast: Chris Klein, Leelee Sobieski, Josh Hartnett, Michael Rooker, Annette O'Toole, Bruce Greenwood, Annie Corley, Elaine Hendrix, Stuart Wilson.
2000 – 96 minutes
Rated: Rated PG-13 (for mild profanity and sexual situations).
Reviewed by Dustin Putman, March 25, 2000.

"Here on Earth" may be a cliched melodrama, the same, or similar, to any umpteenth movie about romance and tragedy, but give it points for having its characters be fairly intelligent teenagers, rather than caricatures starring in the next high school comedy. As someone who cannot stand sappy movies, or anything that overly strains for tears from either happiness or heartbreak, the verdict on "Here on Earth" comes fairly as a surprise, considering that the cheese admittedly does grow rather overwhelmingly in the finale. But maybe it is the good type of cheese--Velveeta or Helluvagood, rather than a generic store brand--because, for once, its obvious manipulations really did work on an emotional level.

When Kelley Morse (Chris Klein), a rich and snobbish senior at Rallston Academy, an exclusive boys' prep school in Massachusetts, receives a sleek new car as a compensation gift from his father (Stuart Wilson), who will be away on business during his graduation, missing his valedictorian speech, he decides to take a ride with two buddies into a nearby rural community. After saying a few patronizing things to the waitress at the local diner, 17-year-old Samantha (Leelee Sobieski), Kelley ends up getting in a drag race with her boyfriend, Jasper (Josh Hartnett), which ends with them crashing and the diner, owned by Sam's family, burning to the ground.

As punishment for the crime, Kelley is sentenced to spend the summer at Jasper's family's home, where the two boys will fulfill their community service by aiding in the reconstruction of the diner. At first, sulking and refusing to eat with the residents of the town, Sam eavesdrops on him one day in the woods, as he is giving the speech that he ultimately will not be able to give at his graduation. When he quotes Robert Frost's poem "Birches," Sam's favorite, she suspects there's more to Kelley than meets the eye, and maybe--just maybe--behind that hot-shot exterior is a warm, caring heart. Even as she starts to fall in love for the first time in her life, Sam cannot shake off the memories of her childhood and teenage best friend Jasper, whose romantic relationship with Sam just sort of happened, as if it was to be expected.

The ads for "Here on Earth" downplay the picture's tragic last half-hour, and that is a smart move. Once audiences--its target being teenage girls between 13-18, but that could easily stretch out to other demographics--get into the theater to see a sumptuously photographed, idyllic romance, there will be no escaping its downbeat final act, which, if my theater-packed, sobbing audience is any indication, has the power to truly touch you, even as the characters may sometimes be saying things that are so clearly from a screenplay, rather than realistically coming out of their mouths. If my assumptions are correct, "Here on Earth" could easily become the big sleeper of the spring movie season, and since it may be the most successful film of its teen tragedy formula since 1970's classic weepy, "Love Story," it deserves recognition.

If the dialogue occasionally wanders into the sap, cheese, and corn factories, it not once is shameless, and the performances are easily the element that pushes the film up an extra notch or two. First and foremost, Leelee Sobieski, a wonderful and fresh find who has starred in such films as 1998's "Deep Impact" and "A Soldier's Daughter Never Cries," and had a small role in Stanley Kubrick's 1999 opus, "Eyes Wide Shut," brings true depth and sharp-wittedness to her role as Samantha. You care about her, and the decisions she makes, because she is the type of teenager who favors reading, intellect, and true love, over meaningless sex and drugs, and has an amiable, kind presence.

Her romantic counterpart, Chris Klein, has wisely chosen a serious role over his first two comedic ones in "Election" and "American Pie," and although he unavoidably has that goofy sort of look about him, it isn't his fault and he shouldn't be criticized merely for that. Klein tries his hardest and makes very few missteps, while the two of them (Sobieski and Klein) are well-cast together, and have perfectly tasteful chemistry. One look at them, and you just know there is nothing naughty at all going on in their minds. All they are interested in is finding someone who cares about and loves them as much as they likewise do.

The third, and last, central role is that of Jasper, played with a surprising poignant maturity by Josh Hartnett, who was unable to show off the full range of his acting abilities in 1998's "The Faculty" and "Halloween: H20," but who proves here that he is a truly talented young actor with an undoubtedly bright future ahead of him. Jasper is smartly written in Michael Seitzman's screenplay, not as a jerk who fights for his girl when she inevitably chooses to be with Kelley, but as an understanding young man who cares too much for Sam to not respect her choices in life.

Added credit must go to Seitzman's script, not for its intermittent schmaltz, but for not resorting to easy teen stereotypes and a story whose suspense comes from whether two certain characters will end up together. We know for the majority of "Here on Earth" that Kelley and Sam will be together because their romance has begun by the 30-minute mark. Instead, we wonder what else the story has to offer, and although its late plot development can be easily telegraphed if you watch closely enough throughout, at least it seriously deals with tough life decisions and the mending, or closure, of loving relationships.

Directed by Mark Piznarski, "Here on Earth" has the ability to sometimes be too obvious, but if there is ever a genre for really good melodramas, ones that don't come around very often, that work despite their downfalls, then this is one of the prime candidates. Adding validity to the project, Sobieski, Klein, and Hartnett are a strong thespian team, and are aided by earnest supporting roles from the likes of Annette O'Toole and Bruce Greenwood (as Sam's parents), Elaine Hendrix (as Sam's older sister), and Annie Corley (as Jasper's mother). It may not be an earthshaking cinematic experience, but it does have its heart in the right place, here on earth.

©2000 by Dustin Putman

Dustin Putman