Kirsten Dunst wears no discernible makeup in crazy/beautiful, and her hair, cut to medium length, hangs over her face in limp, indifferent bangs. This is no primped and airbrushed teen idol. It’s an actress in the raw, her feelings shining right through her pale dimpled skin. 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 halter tops, but who is really a sweet-tempered lost girl addicted to her confusion. When she meets Carlos (Jay Hernandez), a smoldering Latino classmate who travels two hours by bus from East L.A. to attend the mostly white Pacific High School, she draws him into her maelstrom, the recklessness of her desire.
Crazy/beautiful never entirely shakes off opposite-sides-of-the-tracks cliches, 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 so chivalrous that he makes Nicole lure 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. He and Dunst draw an intimacy right out of their hot-bod flirtation.
Nicole’s father, a widowed California congressman (Bruce Davison), loves her too much and not enough, insensitively conflating the troubled, impetuous party girl with her self-destructive mom. Or something like that. The family strife comes right out of the Dysfunction Handbook — at least, until Davison and Dunst are allowed to play off each other, at which point crazy/beautiful becomes genuinely touching. Dunst, in her finest performance, has now transcended her fellow teen stars. She is arguably the first actress of her generation poised to take on Gwyneth and Julia.