It begins like a cutesy teen comedy and ends like an arty MTV video, but in between, Antonia Bird, the powerhouse British director of Priest, cannily subverts the cornball clichés in this adolescent love story from Disney. Drew Barrymore pulls you up short with a funny, sexy and surprisingly heartfelt performance as Casey Roberts, a free spirit who blows into Seattle from Chicago and dazzles the dork soul of Matt Leland (Chris O’Donnell), an honor student who has been caring for his dad (Kevin Dunn) and two younger siblings since his mom took a walk. It’s more than sex with Casey that liberates Matt, it’s her rule-busting defiance. Matt is slow to accept that Casey’s idea of fun – she pulls a fire alarm to get attention and covers his eyes while he’s driving – indicates mental instability.
When Casey’s parents (Joan Allen and Jude Ciccolella) confine her to a psychiatric hospital, Matt breaks her out, and the two head for Mexico. It’s on the road that Bird and the actors find the emotional core of Paula Milne’s script. No matter how fierce Matt’s feelings are for Casey, his love can’t cure her clinical depression. O’Donnell finds the characters helplessness when that realization sinks in. And Barrymore etches a subtle and chilling portrait of a breakdown. Chain-smoking Casey tries to expel her demons with music (the soundtrack, covering grunge to classic rock, is expertly chosen), sex, drugs, even attempted suicide. In a piercing scene Casey sits with Matt in a restaurant out West, trying vainly to hold the thread of a conversation while her mind unravels. Bird fixes the camera on Casey’s face as if to see inside. Thanks to the luminous Barrymore, this uneven but undeniably moving film comes close.