Based on Pete Fromm’s coming-of-age novel of the same name, As Cool As I Am follows the life of a high school student and aspiring chef, Lucy (Sarah Bolger), whose parents’ relationship becomes increasingly rocky at the same time as she begins to grapple with young adulthood and its share of increasing complexities. The girl’s troubles begin simply enough when her relationship with her best friend, Kenny (Thomas Mann), is complicated after the two begin to experiment sexually. The film is predicated on the anxiety and awkwardness of adolescent sexuality, but it’s also didactic about being sexually active at too young an age. After all, Lucy’s parents, Chuck and Lainee (James Marsden and Claire Danes), became pregnant with Lucy in their late teens, and as a result of having her had to drop out of high school.
Both Lucy and Kenny’s parents are shocked to hear that their children are sexually active, with Kenny’s mother going so far as to force him to live with his father in another city. Many of these story developments are timed for narrative convenience, such as Kenny moving right at the time that Lucy struggles to deal with other problems in her life and is more in need of a friend than ever before. The film tries to ram in as many emotionally scarring incidents into an already clunky narrative in order to capture the tribulations of collective adolescent experience. But the reality is that Lucy is just one girl, and the number of calamities she faces is enough drama for an entire season of Degrassi and would be divided among several of its characters.
It’s not enough that Lucy’s parents were young when they had her; they’re both equally immature and ill-prepared for parenthood. Chuck slaps Lucy after walking in on her having sex with another boy, and at the end of the film, Lainee, having kicked Chuck out of the house and thus freeing herself to date other men, leaves Lucy to live with her old high school sweetheart (though it’s a consensual decision, with Lucy telling Lainee she can take care of herself). And it’s not enough that Chuck is an overprotective patriarch who believes women shouldn’t work, he’s also abusive, giving a clear-cut excuse for her mother to finally end the relationship, as if Lainee’s dissatisfaction in their marriage wasn’t reason enough.
The film sets up as many tumultuous situations as it can in an effort to be taken seriously, but frequently omits follow-up scenes wherein the logical consequences of such events could ostensibly play out. Having Lucy feel uncomfortable about sex and going to Planned Parenthood to obtain contraception isn’t enough to sustain attention for more than one scene, even though her experiences are depicted as terrifying. Later, she’s raped during a party and is forced to confront the reality of possibly having contracted HIV and being pregnant. The film’s incapacity to seriously deal with the gritty details of such harrowing experiences is so glaring it detracts attention from its numerous other contrivances, such as unnecessarily sentimental montages and a twee soundtrack. For a film that fails to imbue the protagonist’s complex life with even an ounce of realistic emotional tenor, As Cool As I Am is the cinematic equivalent of a teenager, making everything more melodramatic than it needs to be, and impatient with the subtle details of life.