June 28, 2001 at 04:00 AM EDT

Kirsten Dunst wears no discernible makeup in crazy/beautiful, and her hair, cut to medium length, hangs over her face in limp, indifferent bangs. Her smile, which reveals a row of faintly vampiric teeth, flashes with pleasurable hunger, but it’s a momentary sensation, held in check by eyes that sparkle and then turn dark. This is no primped and airbrushed teen idol. It’s an actress in the raw, her feelings shining right through her pale dimpled skin.

In ”crazy/beautiful,” Dunst plays 17 year old Nicole, an overprivileged Los Angeles high school student who drinks and drugs too much and fashions herself a wild child in her baby doll insignia halter tops, but who is really a sweet tempered lost girl acting out her confusion because it’s the only thing that she’s certain of. When she meets Carlos (Jay Hernandez), a smoldering Latino classmate who travels two hours by bus each way from East L.A. to attend the ritzy, mostly white Pacific High School, she draws him into her maelstrom, the recklessness of her desire.

”crazy/beautiful” is a romance that never completely shakes off ”opposite sides of the tracks” clichés, even when it’s clever about reversing them. Carlos has been made into a liberal hunk role model for the Ricky Martin era — a soft-spoken A student and football star who won’t even drink at a party and is so assuredly chivalrous that he forces Nicole to take her time getting him into bed. Aimed like catnip at the new melting pot teen audience, Carlos the baby cheeked swarthy saint is a demographer’s wet dream, but newcomer Jay Hernandez, with his intelligent, open face and killer grin, gives him glimmers of depth and sorrow. Carlos doesn’t just fall in love with Nicole. He’s got to save her as well — save her from herself — and Dunst and Hernandez, who look terrific together, draw an intimacy right out of their hot bod flirtation.

What’s Nicole’s problem, anyway? Her father, a widowed California congressman (Bruce Davison), loves her too much and not enough, insensitively conflating the reckless, troubled girl with her self destructive mom. Or something like that. Davison, a great actor, appears to be playing Michael Douglas before he eases up on the grouchy anger and softens the character into a creation of his own. The familial strife comes right out of the dysfunction handbook — at least, until Davison and Dunst are finally allowed to play off each other, at which point ”crazy/beautiful” becomes genuinely touching. Dunst, in her finest performance yet, has now transcended her fellow teen stars. She is arguably the first actress of her generation poised to take on Gwyneth and Julia.

95 minutes
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