Smarter than other ‘90s teen-led films, 10 Things I Hate About You is perhaps best known as the American debut of tragic superstar Heath Ledger.
Smarter than other ‘90s teen-led films like Can’t Hardly Wait and She’s All That but dumber than peers like Clueless and Election, Gil Junger’s 10 Things I Hate About You is perhaps best known as the American debut of tragic superstar Heath Ledger. Like Clueless, it’s a Shakespearean adaptation; in this case it’s The Taming of the Shrew that gets the ‘90s treatment. At the time, perhaps, it seemed female-forward, particularly as it was anchored by a strong performance by a then-emerging Julia Stiles. However, watching today reveals 10 Things I Hate About You to be awfully backward, which isn’t a shock considering its influential 400-year-old inspiration was one of Shakespeare’s more sexist works. Where the film does hold up, however, is as a time capsule of talent. The film is packed to the gills with impressive performers, some of whom went on to have great careers, others who never really took off and, in Ledger’s case, one who left us far too soon.
The film begins in a tangle of teenage hormones and awkwardly Shakespearized-plotting. The sweet but dorky Cameron (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) wants to date Bianca (Larisa Oleynik), but Bianca – who in reality wants to date the slick but awful Joey (Andrew Keegan) – can’t get her father to let her date until her man-hating sister Kat (Julia Stiles) does. When Cameron goes after Bianca, she tells him of her father’s stipulation and Cameron sets out to find one. He does so with Patrick (Ledger), a beautiful bad boy with more to him than meets the eye. Awkwardness, hilarity, troubled pasts, teenage drinking and school dances ensue.
It should all be much more cringeworthy than it is, but the personalities of the young stars shine through beautifully. Stiles, who never gotten enough credit for using her stoic face in such Garbo-like ways, makes the too-sullen Kat consistently relatable. ‘90s star Oleynik, who has popped up recently in TV shows like “Mad Men” and “Hawaii Five-0” plays the petulant Bianca with just enough egotistical charm that it makes you wish the film had taken place in the Instagram era. The ageless Gabrielle Union makes an appearance, as does the always-fun David Krumholtz. Gordon-Levitt is solid and sweet, though it is amazing to see how far he’s come as an actor since his hardworking teens and twenties. Two actors who sparkle here but haven’t been seen as much since are Andrew Keegan, who plays aspiring model Joey with such believable slimy attractiveness that it seems like he could have a great career in cologne commercials if acting didn’t work out, and Susan May Pratt, who plays Kat’s lovely friend Mandella.
Finally, there’s Ledger, who the camera loves. He is beautiful, sure, but the vulnerability that would display later in his career with his most memorable roles as Brokeback Mountain’s Ennis Del Mar and The Dark Knight’s Joker is evident even at this early stage of his film career. There is a certain coltish-ness to him (and others, Stiles and Gordon-Levitt in particular), but it makes his appearance even more exciting and tragic in equal measure. You can see Ledger growing into himself in this film, yet he was already good enough to pull off being a believable teenage butthead and dreamboat within the same film.
10 Things I Hate About You is remembered more for Heath Ledger than anything else, but the rest of its excellent talent deserves a watch as well. With so many films and television shows now being built around a big star and then padded with forgettable supporting parts, it is so refreshing to see a film that gave so many young actors a chance to shine. Though not all of them became household names, there good work will live on here, right aside Ledger’s, for the rest of time.