October 17, 2010 -- I'll review anything if somebody sends me a DVD of it. On that basis, here is my review of “16 to Life,” a movie I would not have seen otherwise. I hadn't even heard of it until it arrived in the mail. It takes a while to get going, but eventually the quirky, likeable characters do grow on you. This is a low-key romantic comedy which takes place in a small town along the Mississippi River. It is a bit like a combination of Jane Austen's “Emma” and John Hughes' “16 Candles.”
Shot on a small budget in Marquette, McGregor and Stone City, Iowa, most of the action takes place in an ice cream shack along the river. It is Kate's (Hallee Hirsh of the TV show “ER”) 16th birthday, and word gets out that she's never been kissed. Will she ever live this down? From her perspective, maybe not. Her best friend and fellow waitress, Darby (Mandy Musgrave) is talking about having sex with her boyfriend, although she and Kate had made a pact to wait until true love to take that step. Short order cook Renee (Shiloh Fernandez of the TV show “Jericho”) is waiting for his own romantic encounter. Another worker (the ice cream shack is way over staffed) is a tall, attractive Russian emigrant, Amber (Julie Mickelson) and the shack's owner, Louise (played by veteran actress Theresa Russell of “Spider-Man III”), is like a second mother to the young girls.
While the camera lingers often on the curves of the girls, it also lingers on the vivid blue eyes of Hallee Hirsh (she also has red hair, like her 16 Candles counterpart, Molly Ringwald). There is also attention paid to the trains that rumble through the small town. The film does a good job of capturing the spirit of small town life, where everyone knows everyone else's business. Before the film is through, we learn some interesting secrets of some of the town characters, including Ronald (Jaime Gomez of “Crimson Tide”). There is also this whole alternate universe business about the Chinese Cultural Revolution. There are fantasy sequences where Kate finds herself caught up in episodes from a book she is reading about a woman's experiences during the Cultural Revolution. This does have something to do with Kate's state of mind, but not as much as it should. It is more of a mildly amusing and underdeveloped diversion than an integral part of the story.
This is not just a story about young people. Older characters also have meaningful roles, which is unusual in this kind of film. Theresa Russell probably would not be in this film if she didn't have more to do than ride herd on a crew of hormone-laden teens. The script does give her an added dimension and more scenes that go beyond her boss-lady status. It is also unusual to have this kind of film set in a small, relatively isolated, town. This is not a great movie by any means, but it is well-rounded and engrossing, more like a European film than an American one in some ways. It digs deeper into its characters, and into the meaning of life, than most movies bother to explore. As far as a character study goes, the characters did get to me after a while. This film rates a B.
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