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CULTURE CLASH

CRAZY/BEAUTIFUL ***

STARRING: Kirsten Dunst, Jay Hernandez

DIRECTOR: John Stockwell

RUNNING TIME: 95 minutes

RATING: PG-13 for drug-alcohol content, sexuality and language

THE LOWDOWN: A disturbed rich girl falls in love with a Hispanic schoolmate.

Carlos Nunez is a straight-A student from the barrio who gets up before dawn to board the bus in east Los Angeles for the two-hour ride to a better high school in glitzy Pacific Palisades.

Nicole Oakley is a depressed, rebellious, substance-abusing rich girl, a congressman's daughter who falls out of bed in her antiseptic million-dollar mansion and just barely makes it to school in the Jeep convertible driven by her equally whacked-out best friend.

"Crazy/Beautiful," the first feature film from director John Stockwell, takes a familiar story of high school romance between teens from opposite social circumstances, but endows it with real emotional heft, thanks to outstanding performances from Kirsten Dunst as troubled Nicole and hunky newcomer Jay Hernandez as steady Carlos.

Nicole first catches Carlos' eye while she's picking up trash on the beach with a road crew, working off a community service sentence for some mysterious criminal act.

Maybe it's her stringy hair. (Dunst bravely looks her worst throughout the film.) Maybe it's her bare midriff. Maybe it's the air of danger about her, the contrast with the demure Hispanic girls Carlos' mother would prefer he take an interest in.

Whatever it is, beautiful Carlos goes crazy for Nicole, abandoning his usual caution as their relationship develops through a series of quick scenes reminiscent of music videos.

The reckless antics of Nicole and her friends make the start of the film hard to watch, but it evolves into an absorbing story as Carlos gradually comes to understand just how crazy Nicole is, and how she got that way.

The culture clash takes an interesting twist here. Both families oppose the relationship, not on ethnic grounds, but because they believe Nicole will derail Carlos' dream of becoming a Navy pilot.

Dunst, who demonstrated the giddy comic gift of a young Cameron Diaz in "Bring It On" and "Get Over It" and was the luminous heart of the haunting "The Virgin Suicides," turns in another remarkable performance here as a psychologically scarred, emotionally needy adolescent. Hernandez is the perfect foil, displaying an appealing and credible mix of uncertainty and empathy.

Although the film has its predictable elements, it offers a thoughtful study of a troubled teen, and its message about the healing power of love is a positive one.

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