I LOVE YOU, BETH COOPER is a raucous coming of age film that compresses the action into one tumultuous day and night. The day is graduation, the coming of age is done by Dennis, and the tumultuous is courtesy of the object of his longing, the eponymous Beth Cooper. It is a time fraught with peril, not the least of which is discovering the truth about the fantasy.
Spurred by the thought, and the nagging of best pal Rich (Jack Carpenter), that he not only won’t see Beth ever again, but that she will never know he existed, Dennis takes the opportunity of his valedictory speech to say the words “I love you, Beth Cooper” that he’s dreamed of saying since the seventh grade. He also takes the opportunity to gracefully deconstruct his entire class, including Rich’s sexual preference. Rich doesn’t take it too personally, aside from brisk denials, but Beth, that’s another matter. She’s finally noticed Dennis, and decided that he’s just cute enough to not be killed. Her boyfriend, Kevin (Shawn Roberts), however, the one with ‘roid rage, that’s another matter. Forbidden by faculty to kill Dennis on school property, he makes it his graduation night mission to accomplish the task elsewhere, fueled by controlled substances, and Beth’s annoying habit of hanging out with the gob-smacked Dennis.
Adapted by Larry Doyle from his novel of the same name, the script may not be a masterpiece of character development, but it does manage to home in on those moments, good, bad, and memorable that define the school experience. Tantalizing smatterings of flashbacks provide context for some situations with an arch sensibility and a poignant absurdity. The same can be said for the night itself, with its perils to be found with champagne bottles, cow tipping, and Beth Cooper’s driving with a blithe insouciance for anything else on the road, even the road itself. As for Beth herself, more dangerous, more self-aware, and more real than Dennis ever imagined, the night becomes a short space of time in which to make a lifetime’s acquaintance, also good, bad, and memorable. By the end, each has had the sort of revelation that this sort of story demands, and has done it with the palpable bruising that leaving adolescence behind also demands. Hayden Panettiere as Beth is blond perfection with a radiant smile and looks that can morph effortlessly from wholesome to wicked to a wisdom that transcends IQ. Paul Rust as Dennis is unmitigated awkwardness. His efforts to be smooth crash and burn with no survivors, while the book smarts manifest as a natural effervescence. That he would comment, much less know, that cows lack incisors has about it the whiff of inevitability.
Sweet, funny, and smart in unexpected ways, I LOVE YOU BETH COOPER has the right note of nostalgia, of memories sifted through the lens of memory that leaves some moments in sharp detail, infusing them with a power that they might not have had at the time.