Kevin Spacey and Mena Suvari explain why this dark comedy gets teens right

By Josh Wolk
September 28, 1999 at 04:00 AM EDT
DreamWorks LLC

There’s something odd about the teenage characters in ”American Beauty,” at least by today’s movie and TV standards: They DON’T spend the whole film strategizing how to lose their virginity or exchanging wise-beyond-their-years bons mots. What they DO is something you won’t see in ”American Pie” or ”Dawson’s Creek” — act like real teenagers. ”I love the fact that the script treated kids without any bulls—,” says ”Beauty” director Sam Mendes. ”They’re rude and offensive to each other and sulky and intelligent, and all those things you just don’t see on screen.”

For ”Beauty,” which the New Yorker has called the best American movie of the year, screenwriter Alan Ball (a veteran of the sitcom ”Cybill”) captured the true angst of teens. The insecure Jane (played by ”Patriot Games”’ Thora Birch, 17) is in a constant state of sneering and eye-rolling at her henpecked father (Kevin Spacey) and passive-aggressive perfectionist mother (Annette Bening). Her best friend Angela (”American Pie”’s Mena Suvari, 20) is the consummate prima donna cheerleader, who tries to seduce Spacey to reassure herself that she’s attractive. Not exactly your typical hokey prom drama. ”I’ve had people say, ‘Oh, I really didn’t identify with ”American Pie” at all, I didn’t act like that in high school,”’ says Suvari. ”Here, a lot of people can say, ‘Wow, I had those problems myself.”’

The mistake most screenwriters stumble into while writing for teens is forgetting just how calamitous high school can be. ”When you’re in it, man, it’s tough stuff,” says costar Wes Bentley, 21. ”It’s hard for some writers to identify with again.” Consequently, even though there are more opportunities than ever for teen actors, most of the roles involve not acting their age. ”You find yourself convincing yourself, ‘Oh, well, that’s kind of why we’re in this business, to portray things that wouldn’t happen in your everyday life,”’ says Birch. ”In lots of other films, I always say, ‘Well, kids don’t really talk like that.’ But in this one, I was like, ‘No, I talk just like that. And it’s sad.”’

”American Beauty” is already being touted as a serious Oscar contender, which makes it a better career move for the young actors than the typical high school sex comedy that has all the cultural impact of a pimple. ”[Hollywood] did the same thing in the ’60s with those beach movies,” says Spacey. ”They made a lot of money doing those harmless films, and now they’re actually very hilarious to catch on TV late at night. I suspect today’s glut of these teen comedies is gonna be like that in about 20 years. I don’t think those are films that last [artistically] and I’m glad [”Beauty”] is a nice contrast to that.” Easy for him to say — he’s grown up.