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Making their beauty marks

With their much-talked-about performances as bad girls in “American Beauty,” Mena Suvari and Thora Birch are revving up for long rides on Hollywood’s fast track.

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They are the two young women everyone is talking about — the rose-petal vixen and the pensive malcontent so sarcastic and alienated she makes Christina Ricci look like a Power Puff Girl. Together, they have reinvented what it means to be the girl next door.

At first glance, though, Mena Suvari, 20, and Thora Birch, 17, the stars of American Beauty, look just like normal high school kids. When they bop into the offices of DreamWorks in Universal City — Mena with silver toe rings, Thora toting a faux-cheetah purse — they easily could be mistaken for the suburban daughters of some development exec. But these are two seasoned performers. ”I was the Quaker Oats girl,” admits Birch, who plays Kevin Spacey’s brooding daughter in the film. She’s referring to her first acting gig — a cereal commercial at age 4. ”Wilford Brimley would talk about the oats and I’d go, ‘Mmm-hmm. Yeah, grandpa.”’

Thirteen years and an equal number of movie credits later (including Now and Then and Patriot Games), Birch is still getting attention from older men. After Beauty, she says, ”It’s the 30-year-old guys who suddenly seem to recognize me.” But young women are also relating to Birch’s acerbic character. (Dad: ”So Janie, how was school?” Janie: ”It was spectacular, Dad.”) ”I know people like this,” Birch says. ”This is how they talk. These are their words.”

Suvari’s character is also someone we’ve all met — and feared: the self-assured cheerleader type who seems so much cooler because of all the men she’s had, and who plays her hand with such sangfroid, you never quite know when she’s bluffing. But Suvari, a 12-year veteran of TV guest spots who made her first big impact on Generation Y as a choirgirl in last summer’s American Pie, takes a more nurturing view of her character — which is only fitting for the daughter of a psychiatrist and a nurse. ”Like everyone else in the film,” she says, ”she’s someone who’s trying to find herself.”

A month into its release, thanks in part to a teen-targeted TV ad campaign that all but leaves out stars Spacey and Annette Bening, the film is beginning to draw more under-30 moviegoers than it did initially. ”We realized very early on that kids were loving the movie and they completely got the themes,” says coproducer Dan Jinks. ”In so many of these teen movies, the adults are either the villains or stock characters or the comic relief or they don’t exist at all. We were like, Finally, here’s a movie that has both generations in it in a really intelligent, thoughtful way, and people are responding to that.” Indeed, Suvari’s fan response has surprised her. ”I was scared people would be like, ‘Nice breasts,”’ she says. ”[But] it’s funny — the only people that recognized me were five women.”

Hollywood, fortunately, is a bit more perceptive. ”We know things are different,” Birch says, ”because the scripts are coming directly to us now and our names are spelled correctly.” Suvari just wrapped New Line’s dark comedy Sugar and Spice, in which she plays another cheerleader, and Birch stars opposite Jeremy Irons in Warner’s Dungeons and Dragons, based on the role-playing fantasy game. After that, Suvari will travel to Germany with her boyfriend, cinematographer Robert Brinkmann, 37; Birch will finish up high school in a correspondence program. And both will weigh what are likely to be an avalanche of offers. ”I don’t have anything set yet,” Birch says, ”but I want something a little more seedy, a little more nasty. I think I want even more edge.”