“Can’t Hardly Wait” arrived five years after “Dazed and Confused” introduced us to Texan stoners, jocks, and soon-to-be freshmen, and one year before “Detroit Rock City” showed us one hell of a way to get to a KISS concert. All three films take place in less than 24 action-packed, substance-abusing hours, but “Can’t Hardly Wait” gave us the best damn graduation party of 1998.
Also? Lauren Ambrose.
Because before she was nominated for two consecutive Emmys for her role as hearse-driving art student Claire Fisher on Alan Bell’s indelible HBO series “Six Feet Under,” Ambrose established her brand of sardonic high school outcast as Denise Fleming.
Denise is on her way to NYU in the fall, and her best friend Preston (an adorably wide-eyed Ethan Embry) is the only person she’ll miss from Huntington Hills High. All Denise wants to do is hang before he leaves for an intensive writing workshop the next morning. All Preston wants is to attend the big graduation party, as it’s his last chance to tell his newly single dream girl how he feels about her.
Good friend that she is, Denise shows up to the party in Preston’s passenger seat—albeit with a chip on her leather-jacketed shoulder. Her sour mood only worsens when she sees Kenny Fisher (played by a spot-on Seth Green), a classmate who has appropriated hip-hop culture to the point of parody (think Diddy’s shiny-suits-and-goggles phase) and has explicitly come to the party to get laid.
Left alone while Preston searches for the object of his affection, Ambrose expertly portrays the loneliness that radiates from Denise’s perch on the couch. She perks up when a girl seemingly more awkward than her approaches, but their interaction is cut short; after Denise answers that yes, they’d had a class together, the girl immediately runs back to her friends and exclaims, “See, I told you guys she went to our school. Pay up!”
“Can’t Hardly Wait” is about one epic party, but it’s really about the desperate way we reminisce for yesterday after a milestone has been reached. It’s about how we cling to insignificant memories that would otherwise be dismissed, because a chapter has closed and change is scary.
We start to see a bit of what formed Denise’s chapter when she accidentally walks in on Kenny practicing moves from the “Kama Sutra” over the bathroom sink with strings of condoms clenched between his teeth. She doesn’t just despise Kenny for saying things like “Time is honeys” and carrying around a backpack called a “love kit.” They used to be friends.
Or, as Denise says, “We used to play ‘Miami Vice’ in my basement” until Kenny dropped her in middle school because she was a smart kid who didn’t have a lot of money and he “desperately needed to sit at the trendy table in the cafeteria.” Ambrose delivers the lines with the perfect mix of strangled emotion and pragmatism: Kenny is speechless. And once it’s determined that they’re locked in the bathroom for the unforeseeable future, he drops his faux-swagger to talk to her for the first time in years.
And then (obviously) they do it. Kenny is a virgin. Denise is not. Their time together is sweet but afterward, Denise inadvertently insults his sexual prowess and Kenny’s crippling insecurity sends him right back into his hip-hop persona, speaking to her in nonsensical slang as if the last couple of hours never happened.
Later, they fight (again) in the street and make up.
The next day, they break up and get back together within 15 minutes of meeting at the diner where Denise says goodbye to Preston.
You never get the sense that Denise and Kenny’s on-again, off-again relationship will last a week, let alone through the summer. But Ambrose’s performance convinces us that if Denise is willing to forgive him for dropping her so many years ago, she will more than hold her own with the future Kenny Fishers of the world.
Brandy Colbert is the author of young adult novel “Pointe” and copy editor for Backstage magazine.
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