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Dustin Putman

Dustin's Review

The Girl Next Door (2004)
4 Stars

Directed by Luke Greenfield
Cast: Emile Hirsch, Elisha Cuthbert, Chris Marquette, Paul Dano, Timothy Olyphant, James Remar, Timothy Bottoms, Donna Bullock, Jacob Young, Brian Kolodziej, Brandon Irons, Amanda Swisten, Sung Hi Lee, Harris Laskaway, Ulysses Lee, Katie Stuart, Olivia Wilde, Autumn Reese, Richard Fancy, Catherine McGoohan
2004 – 109 minutes
Rated: Rated R (for strong sexual content, language, and some drug/alcohol use).
Reviewed by Dustin Putman, February 21, 2004.

There are three types of teen films. The first are the downright awful, brain-dead products that rely solely on stereotypes and cliches (the most recent example would be 2003's "Love Don't Cost a Thing"). The second and most populated group are the disposably harmless but fun (1999's "She's All That," 2000's "Whatever It Takes," etc.). Occasionally there is a step above this, such as 1999's "10 Things I Hate About You" and 1999's "American Pie," which are a bit smarter than the norm but would still fall safely within the upper regions of this second group.

The third type of teen film, and the rarest, are those motion pictures so truthful and so iconic that they hit the nail on the head of what it is like to be a teenager. Not only that, but those that have the power to a define a generation, much like John Hughes' oeuvre and "Fast Times at Ridgemont High" did for the 1980s and "Clueless" did for the '90s. They are so universal in their subject matter and appeal that you do not have to be a member of the target demographic to thoroughly understand and appreciate them. Most of the time, they also are wise to avoid fads and the latest "flash-in-the-pan" Top 40 song so that they remain timeless and never outdate themselves beyond unavoidable technical advancements.

"The Girl Next Door" belongs squarely within this third category of teen film, and is the best motion picture about teenage life since 2001's "Donnie Darko." That it is only February and already has a spot reserved on my Top 10 list of 2004 is a no-brainer. Shocking, too, that director Luke Greenfield's only major filmmaking credit to date is 2001's Rob Schneider comedy, "The Animal," a project he clearly took for financial reasons. It was a means to an end in getting his foot in the door. From the first frame to the last, "The Girl Next Door" oozes passion on director Greenfield's part. He is a real find, a fresh, talented filmmaker who flawlessly makes his way through broad comedy, slice-of-life drama, beautiful romance, wish-fulfillment fantasy, and taut suspense in a 109-minute space without taking a single misguided step.

In its remarkably assured editing by Mark Livoisi (2001's "Vanilla Sky"); its classy cinematography by Jamie Anderson (2003's "Bad Santa"); its attractive and note-perfect cast; its soundtrack that ranks as one of the most astoundingly chosen collections ever put to film; and its transcendent, original, always unpredictable screenplay by Stuart Blumberg, David T. Wagner, and Brent Goldberg (2002's "Van Wilder"), everything in "The Girl Next Door" falls into its rightful place. Should the film catch on with audiences, and it certainly deserves to if viewers can get past the misleading, lowest-common-denominator television ads, it has the power to become the defining teenage picture for Generation Y.

Matthew (Emile Hirsch) is a high school senior and star student who, along with best buddies Eli (Chris Marquette) and Klitz (Paul Dano), stands just outside of the popular circle of his fellow classmates. Recently accepted to Georgetown University, an opportunity that hinges on him winning a much-needed scholarship, Matthew is a moralistic young man torn between continuing on his straight-and-narrow path as he prepares for graduation and letting loose for the very first time. His entire outlook suddenly changes with the entrance of Danielle (Elisha Cuthbert) into his life. A sweet, gorgeous girl who has moved into the house next door while her aunt is away, Danielle is receptive to Matthew's attraction and they start to fall in love. A roadblock arrives when Matthew discovers Danielle is a porn actress struggling to get out of a business she knows she doesn't belong into. And when Danielle's scruffy producer, Kelly (Timothy Olyphant), suddenly shows up to sway her back into the business, Matthew sees his chances with Danielle start to slip away.

Where "The Girl Next Door" goes from here I dare not expose, except to say that the film's creative developments instantly surprise and delight while remaining loyal and honest toward its fondly written characters. Actually, it goes in unexpected directions right from the opening five minutes, which features a breathless montage of teen life so real and varied and encompassing that it induces near-applause before the actual story has even gotten underway. Meanwhile, Matthew experiences frightening "what if?" daydreams throughout that playfully toy with possible outcomes of choices before they are brilliantly uncovered to be fantasies within his mind. And while there is sometimes explicit sexual content, it is not of the raunchy or cheap order, but evolves out of the reality of the situations.

At the center of "The Girl Next Door" is the love story between Matthew and Danielle. For Matthew, Danielle is the epitome of perfection, a young woman not only aesthetically beautiful but also fun and kind and willing to take the sort of chances he is too afraid to take. For Danielle, Matthew is the first boy she has met who sees her as more than just an object, someone who is capable of doing so much more with her life and whom he wholeheartedly believes in. Together, they experience one of the most magical screen romances in recent memory. Their first kiss, played to the strings of David Gray's "This Year's Love" is simply breathtaking in its innocent simplicity and beauty. Other incendiary music uses include songs by The Who, David Bowie, Echo and the Bunnymen, and Filter, among countless others.

The picture is already being compared to 1983's "Risky Business," which it holds superficial similarities with, and if it meets the same success then there is no reason why Emile Hirsch (2002's "The Emperor's Club") shouldn't become the next Tom Cruise. As Matthew, Hirsch is superb, mixing hesitancy and fear with hidden strength he realizes he has along the way. Best known as Kiefer Sutherland's daughter on the television drama, "24," Elisha Cuthbert (2003's "Old School") should be catapulted toward major film stardom in her lovely, endearing turn as Danielle. It should help that she is, indeed, quite a stunner to look at.

As Matthew's pals, Eli and Klitz, Chris Marquette (2003's "Freddy vs. Jason") and Paul Dano (2001's "L.I.E.") naturally fill out the trio, or "tripod" as they describe themselves, while Timothy Olyphant (2003's "The Safety of Objects") is a scene-stealer as the potentially very nasty porn producer, Kelly. Olyphant is just about as good as anyone to fill out the part of the heavy, but he makes it his own by giving Kelly extra character shadings that raise him above one dimensionality.

Movies like "The Girl Next Door" come around once in a blue moon. It is the kind of beautiful gem that seems to appear out of nowhere and blindside you with just how exceptional its every aspect is. And in director Luke Greenfield is a filmmaker who confirms that there is talent of the highest order out there who is capable of much more than just a silly Rob Schneider comedy. He zeroes in on the pulse of today's and yesterday's teenager, and does it with no signs of pretension, smugness, or jokiness. Finally, when the film reached its sublime last scene and the end credits began to roll, the high it gave me toward my love of cinema made me feel like floating out of the theater. "The Girl Next Door" is an entrancing treasure of a film with the ability to touch you deeply, make you roll with laughter, smile with joy, and feel. It is the first unadulterated masterpiece of 2004. Do not, under any circumstances, let it miss your radar of must-see motion pictures.
© 2004 by Dustin Putman
Dustin Putman