Kat, the furiously flip, take-no-prisoners heroine of ”10 Things I Hate About You,” might be described as a ballbuster, although that would hardly do her justice. Brainy, beautiful, and haughty as hell, with dancing feline eyes she narrows in contempt at any guy unlucky enough to make a play for her, Kat has a lot in common with the babelicious teases who saunter through high school movies, like leonine queens of the adolescent jungle. The difference is that Kat isn’t going to win any popularity contests. She’s a willowy, high-strung misfit who armors herself with gender-war rhetoric, pretending that she’s better than everyone around her. She uses her bitchery and wit to put down guys for the unforgivable crime of being guys.
”10 Things I Hate About You” may be the cheekiest ”literary” update yet – a post-riot grrrl gloss on ”The Taming of the Shrew,” with Shakespeare’s plot twirled around devices that have become clichés, virtually overnight, in the new teen comedies: the guy who struggles to land a girl in order to win a bet; the ingenue – in this case Kat’s younger sister, the button-nosed Bianca (Larisa Oleynik) – who’s a virgin to everything but consumerism. ”There’s a difference between like and love,” says Bianca. ”I like my Skechers, but I love my Prada backpack!” The film casts an amusingly jaundiced eye on the unholy status games of contemporary teen culture. When the big keg blowout arrives, it’s a queasy, tequila-soaked suburban sprawl, with make-out sessions glimpsed in all their squirmy desperation and a nerd (the gifted David Krumholtz) bragging to two girls about his plan to buy…a Toyota Tercel.
At the center of it all is that nasty spitfire, Kat, the film’s knowing send-up of feminist princesses who are too clueless to realize how good they have it. The young actress Julia Stiles, in her first major role, casually plays against her luminescent Pre-Raphaelite glow. At times, her hot-blooded earthiness recalls Cate Blanchett’s in ”Elizabeth,” and she makes Kat cruelly ambivalent about the effect her sexiness has on others. Along the way, Kat is wooed and ”tamed” by a suitor of surprising charm – Patrick (Heath Ledger), a gentle Aussie heartthrob who’s like Val Kilmer before he went flaky; he knows just how to kill Kat with kindness. ”I’m not hostile,” claims Kat. ”I’m annoyed!” The film’s crank-case snappishness doesn’t break any molds, but it certainly gives you a lift.