A Look Back: Outside Providence

In the cumbersomely named nonfiction book, “Queen Bees, Wannabes: Helping Your Daughter Survive Cliques, Gossip, Boyfriends, and Other Realties of Adolescence,” by Rosalind Wiseman (which was made into “Mean Girls”), one of the many insights it offers into teen life is that weed is the great equalizer. This idea was explored in the 1999 Farrelly brothers’ film, “Outside Providence,” starring Shawn Hatosy as a blue collar teen who spends his senior year at a New England boarding school and learns very little in the way of traditional movie lessons.

This is not a movie which features a working class student who embodies intelligence and integrity, as seen in “School Ties” or “Scent of a Woman,” which came out in the same decade, and whose character arc involves integrating with a snobbish student body but standing by the values of his upbringing. Instead, Shawn plays a guy who’s dumb as the proverbial box of hammers, and winds up at boarding school through a judge being lenient on him after he has yet another brush with the law (literally as it involves weed and cars). After being so condemned, Shawn does not even know what prep school is, and his gruff, crude dad (Alec Baldwin) has to explain that it will prepare him for “not getting your neck broke…by me.” Shawn is not happy, to say the least, to leave his Pawtucket neighborhood, where he has a gang of pothead buddies, a younger brother who was crippled in a freak accident (Tommy Bone), and a dog, but the alternative is worse, so off he goes, with all things in a garbage bag to the land of the preppies: Cornwall Academy. (Pawtucket appears to be played by Pawtucket, not Toronto.)

Shortly upon arrival, Shawn meets a student his age (Gabriel Mann), whose own dad probably does not refer to him (as Shawn’s does) as “Dildo,” but who still needs a break now and then from parental pressure, and so is always available to get high.  Shawn soon runs afoul of the anal-retentive headmaster (Tim Crowe) and starts racking up hours of work duty (leaf raking among other things) – but finds that it’s easy to sneak away and bond with his new set of friends.  There is little in the way of hazing, bullying or nervous breakdowns in this movie; instead Shawn develops a bond with his nerdy roommate (Jack Ferver), and one of the few girls on campus (Amy Smart, who looks like a J. Crew model catching that Frisbee).  Amy has her ambitions set on Brown University (Shawn notes, “We have one of those in Providence!”) and has worked hard throughout her time at the school, though she also balances work with play and occasionally lights up, too.  This will eventually cause plot tension, although there is not an anti-drug message to be found unlike a lot of teen-oriented movies.

At Christmas break, Shawn returns home to experience some heart-to-heart bonding with his dad, where he learns what living with a mentally ill wife was like for Alec.  He introduces Jack to his working class crew, and they bond, too.  Then he’s off with Amy for a mini-vacation before returning to campus – where as I mentioned, they have to deal with potential derailment of their dreams.  Shawn does mature a little and even begins to realize the value of higher education, but he’s still recognizably “Dildo,” as he takes his leave of the school.  He’s learned about treacherous peers and bullheaded authority figures – but there’s no speech about values or scene where everyone stands defiantly on desks.  Instead, he’s pretty much  just Shawn, who may be the first in his family to go to college, but there’s his brother who has the final word: “Yeah, but I’m going to be the first to graduate!”

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