John Cusak, who scored a few years back with Rob Reiner's funny and thoughtful "The Sure Thing," has starred in a number of clunkers since then — "Hot Pursuit," "One Crazy Summer," "Tapeheads."
But with "Say Anything," he has found another teenage comedy that has more depth and feeling than we expect to see in any teenage comedy, and one that gives his natural screen warmth an opportunity to show through.
That's not to say "Say Anything" is perfect. There are flaws, a couple that seemed to me rather serious, but on balance this is much more rooted and real than most movies about young people, and develops characters we believe in and care about.
The film opens with Cusak's high school graduation. He lives with his sister (played by his real-life sister, Joan Cusak, who was Oscar-nominated for "Working Girl") and her son. His folks are military travelers who seem to have forgotten they have children.
He's rather aimless, unsure of what he wants to do with his life — but he knows he doesn't want to enter the military like his father. His main interest is what he calls "the sport of the future — kick-boxing."
Cusak's character is also infatuated with the class valedictorian (Ione Skye, of "River's Edge"), a brainy and beautiful girl who has been so locked up with her books she's never had a social life, which her devoted father (John Mahoney) has encouraged.
Summoning up his nerve, Cusak phones Skye and asks her out. She is at first reluctant but eventually accepts and Cusak takes her to a wild graduation party, where, for the first time, Skye begins to realize what she's missed by not allowing herself to make friends in school.
She also, quite naturally, begins to fall for goofy Cusak, who is brazen and uncultured but also honest, forthright, sincere and funny — qualities she admires.
Up to this point, this description doesn't sound all that different from a run-of-the-mill teen flick, but all of this is handled surprisingly well by writer-director Cameron Crowe, the screenwriter of "Fast Times at Ridgemont High" making his directing debut.
But it's hard to sum up what "Say Anything" is about without also giving away a late surprise in the film, a story element that obviously was considered necessary by Crowe for what his movie has to say about honesty and deceit, yet which also is rather disappointing when taken in the larger context of the way parents are treated in teenage films.
Mahoney, as Skye's father, is open and honest with his daughter, and she in turn is the same with him. They have a relationship that is rare to the movies — and probably just as rare in real life. But he is also the most balanced, fully developed parental figure I think I've seen in a movie in the past decade.
It's unfortunate that late in the film Mahoney's character is revealed to be a crook and that he's most unrepentant of his crimes — and that those crimes have involved his deceiving his daughter, despite the love and trust she has demonstrated to him.
This is not treated frivolously, but at the same time it's a shame that the first solid parental characterization to come along in some time turns out to be such a snake. One wonders if teenagers may not pick up from this the tired and rather sad message that parents are not to be trusted, no matter how sincere.
I also found rather disconcerting that after a couple of dates Cusak and Skye have a sexual encounter in the back seat of a car. True, they are now high school grads, but teen sex is treated so frivolously in so many teen movies it is rather disheartening to see a picture that is so well developed otherwise doing the same thing.
Those complaints aside, "Say Anything" is generally intelligent, realistic and as charming as its characters, a comedy-drama in the best sense of that term with fine performances from the three leads, as well as a number well-turned offbeat supporting roles.
"Say Anything" is rated PG-13 for the aforementioned sex scene and scattered profanity.