WARNING: Major spoilers if you have not already watched this film

Rating 2½

Directed by Todd Kessler

Written by Todd Kessler and David Zabel, based on a short story by Ron Carlson

Starring Elisabeth Harnois (Natalie), Jesse McCartney (Keith), Ignacio Serricchio (Rafael), Margo Harshman (Brooke) and Michael McGrady (Pete), Jennifer Grey (Caroline), Michael O’Keefe (Alan), Ethan Phillips (Mr Miles), Eric Parker (Travis), Jessy Schram (Courtney), Micah Henson (Shane), Tabitha Brownstone (Cynthia) and Sam Murphy (Zach)

Natalie Anderson is a popular and conscientious high school student who routinely gets good grades. She plays tennis at competitive level and works hard to maintain her ranking inside the top twenty to guarantee a scholarship that will allow her to attend the prestigious Duke University after graduation. Her boyfriend is Rafael, a good-looking and athletic transfer student. When Natalie is assigned Keith, a glib under-achiever who rarely attends school, as her AP Chemistry partner, she slowly starts to question her life and aspirations – and her carefully ordered existence begins to unravel.

I tried watching ‘Keith’ a while ago and stopped after the first ten minutes or so, suspicious that the film would irritate me and suddenly less than convinced that I really wanted to watch it. I did try again and this time I made it through the whole of the film.

I wonder if Elisabeth Harnois, whose professional acting career dates back nearly 25 years to 1985, gets tired of seemingly always being cast in roles playing teenagers? Here, she is playing a seventeen-year-old high school student. Harnois may possibly have a limited acting range ( I am in no position to judge, although she does seems to play very similar roles, at least in the films and television series I have seen), but she does have a distinctive acting style and I like her very much. Jesse McCartney was a member of a boy band called Dream Street (who I had never heard of before looking it up) and more recently co-wrote the song ‘Bleeding Love’, which, when recorded by the singer Leona Lewis, became the second biggest selling US single release of 2008 and received a Grammy award nomination for Record of the Year.

So, what of the film itself? Natalie is popular. She has high expectations and is working hard to achieve her goals. At the start of the film we see her get up at 5am and go to the tennis courts to practice hitting balls before starting school. When we first encounter Keith he is playing pool with someone who, although not stated, is clearly a counsellor of some kind. Keith is egotistical and arrogant and announces that he plans to “have fun” with a girl at school. From the moment Natalie and Keith first meet in the chemistry lab it is clear that beneath the surface irritation she is already intrigued by him. However, it is somewhat difficult to understand why, because he simply comes across as being insufferably smug.

This set-up is very familiar and very formulaic. It quickly becomes clear that Natalie’s tennis and her school performance will suffer because of the time she spends with Keith and the seeds of doubt he starts to sow.

At the start of the film we see her practicing on the tennis courts and we then see her win a match, with her proud father there to take photographs. Afterwards, he tells her she is ranked fourteenth and we learn that she must stay inside the top twenty to gain the scholarship she needs. Later on, she is lying on her back on the court in the early morning gloom when she should be practicing and she loses a match, much to the concern of her parents and her boyfriend – both Rafael and her mother react with some anger to the defeat and she becomes defensive, dismissing its importance. Her mother and father tell her she has dropped down fifteen places in the rankings and without the scholarship it is no longer possible to attend Duke, but it is now too late to apply to other universities. By this stage, Natalie has already started to question her plans for the future, coming to realise that they are the aspirations of her parents, not hers. The father, as we have already learned, played football at school, but not to any great level of skill, and unsuccessfully applied to attend Duke after graduation. He now has job he doesn’t like and his real passion, photography, is a largely sidelined pastime.

Similarly, early on in the film we see Natalie confidently completing a school test/exam before everyone else, smiling as she hands in the paper and leaves the room early, whereas later on during another test she is now struggling to complete the paper, while all the other students around her successfully finish theirs.

Keith lies to Natalie about himself, creating a fantasy family of brothers and sisters. He disappears from school for weeks at a time. When she finally does track him down, having broken into his school locker in search of information and receiving a one week suspension as a consequence, she discovers that he is an only child living with his father, a mechanic. What Natalie does know is that Keith seems genuinely besotted with the old yellow truck he drives and that his one aspiration after graduation is to go to a classic truck festival in London, Ontario.

Although we do not learn the truth about Keith until very late in the film, it is easy to guess what is coming long before that. At the very beginning of the film it is clear that he has been receiving counselling, even if it is thinly disguised by the game of pool. Eventually, Natalie finds a bottle of pills, a morphine-based antidepressant, but this is no great revelation because by this time it is more than obvious that he has psychiatric problems. His fatalistic streak and refusal to admit to any future goals (other than the truck festival) makes it clear, even though we are not told so, that he can see no future. This is confirmed near to the end of the film when Natalie accidentally discovers that he has cancer, for which he has been receiving chemotherapy (explaining his constant absences from school). By this time, her perfectly ordered life has fallen apart, but the truth opens the final door that allows her to step into a new life, one of her own making.

The real life lesson here is, of course, learned by Keith rather than Natalie. He sets out to destroy her life out of malice, jealous that she has a perfectly mapped out future, while he, through cruel fate, has no future. However, she is stronger and more of a free spirit than he had imagined and there is one thing he does not plan for; he falls in love with her.

This is all fine and good and after the shaky first ten or fifteen minutes I did enjoy the film until the rather sickly-sweet and messy concluding scenes – Natalie in graduation robes, Natalie fitting a new carburettor in the yellow truck with the help of Keith’s father, Natalie driving the truck along a straight stretch of road in the direction of London, Ontario. The problem remains that everything is not only too neat, too easy to second-guess, but also rather hard to believe in and therefore hard to truly engage in. I got no sense that Natalie was stifled by her ordered existence or that this was genuinely forced on her against her will. Therefore, the ease with which Keith was able to manipulate her is not terribly credible. The film’s message becomes jumbled because there is nothing particularly wrong with the life Natalie has or the future she plans. There is some talk about the insincerity and snobbishness of her friends, but this doesn’t really come across – instead, we simply get a sense that the film represents a kind of jealous reaction to their relative privilege.

‘Keith’ plays out like a Lifetime television movie and there is nothing wrong with that, although I suspect it might aspire to more. There is nothing startlingly new here and the story joins all the dots in a very obvious way. Having said that, and perhaps contradicting my criticism of the film, it is well done.

Review posted 29 July 2009

Screencaps taken from

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