by Renee Graham
The Boston Globe, July 12, 1998
pg. N9

It hasn't been that long since Liza Weil was a high school student, not unlike Anna Stockard, the character she plays in the new film Whatever. Like Anna, who aspires to leave her New Jersey hometown to study art in New York, Weil also had fond dreams of an acting career in the big city, leaving behind her suburban Pennsylvania home.

"I really wanted to go to New York and get out of suburbia, but I fell into that whole self-sabotage, 'protect-me-from-what-I-want' syndrome that I think all seniors in high school do," Weil said. "My high school experience was similar to Anna's, so when I read the script for the first time, I was like, 'Man, I messed up for a reason. I'm the only person who can do this.'"

Whatever, which opens Friday, is Susan Skoog's unsentimental film about the volatile cusp between adolescence and adulthood, and about high school, a period once described by writer Susan Sontag as "the most important experience of your life."

In the film, Anna is 17 going on 18, a twitchy teenager moving with uncertainty toward young womanhood as she discovers life's rough edges. She has her sights set on Cooper Union, the prestigious Greenwich Village art school, and is encourged by a caring teacher (Frederic Forrest). But she's torn between dedicating herself to her art and slashing and burning through her senior year with her hell-raising best friend, Brenda (played by Chad Morgan). At home, Anna is often at odds with her mother (Kathryn Rossetter), a single parent who drinks a little too much, spends time with unworthy men, but works to provide for Anna and her younger brother.

"It was the first realistic look at what goes on with adolescent girls in high school that I've ever seen," Weil said in an interview during a publicity stop in Boston. "There's been a bunch of coming- of-age movies which have touched on some of these things, but I was really impressed that an independent filmmaker was so daring in tackling these issues.

"It's important for teenage girls to see these things happen to people, and what they're going through in high school is OK."

Skoog set her film in the early 1980s, a time when Blondie and the Pretenders spilled from radios, a time before AIDS and crack bum-rushed the party. Not coincidentally, those were the years when Skoog attended high school -- Red Bank Regional High, class of '82. The film is set in her New Jersey hometown.

But the film also has a timeless quality as relevant today as when Pat Benatar was considered a fashion icon. And Skoog wanted to make a film that looked at those years with gravity and realism.

"It's a major porthole, it's the end of your childhood," Skoog said. "You're leaving home, you're legal. I really felt like there hadn't been a film that accurately depicted high school, the way I saw it. There are a lot of people who fall between the cracks. Most of us are not prom queens. And most coming-of-age films tend to deal with boys, and I really hadn't seen a film which accurately dealt with girls."

Those sentiments are shared by Weil, 21. She grew up watching films like Sixteen Candles and The Breakfast Club, where the greatest challenge of adolescence was usually finding a date for the prom.

"Those were good for so many reasons, but I think they cause complexes in many teenagers. You're going through high school and you're wondering, 'Uh, when's the guy in the Corvette going to pick me up and make me a birthday cake?'" said Weil, recalling the fanciful coda of Sixteen Candles, where Molly Ringwald finally bags the hunky object of her desire, Michael Schoeffling.

"You start feeling insecure and developing this whole self-image problem, like, 'How come there are no guys who look 28, and are really articulate?'" she said. "Teenagers really don't talk things out in real life. You see these Dawson's Creek teenagers who are so articulate, and talking about every problem imaginable, but the truth is teenagers don't have the skills to talk about things that upset them. I think Susan really captured that."

What Skoog also captures is the rawness of adolescence, one of the last times in our lives when we react without a moment's thought about consequences. The teenagers in Whatever freely engage in sexual activity, drink copious amounts of alcohol, snort drugs, and cuss like longshoremen. Already, Skoog has heard rumblings from those primed to condemn such portrayals of teen life.

"It's realistic. Kids do drugs. When I was in high school, cocaine started to come down from the city," she said. "It's naive to think this doesn't exist, and I think it's better to show it and deal with it. The film does not glamorize drug use in any way, and parents should see movies like this to see what's going on."

Weil's parents have already seen the film. Both were supportive of their daughter's desire to act, which comes somewhat naturally, since Weil's father was part of a comedy troupe, the Madhouse Company of London, in the 1970s and 1980s.

Except for a brief period when Weil considered becoming an archeologist ("In fifth grade I was really mesmerized by the Indiana Jones movies, and the way Harrison Ford looked in his khaki pants and his crackled skin, but now I realize that was some latent sexual fantasy," she quipped), she always wanted to be an actress. When she was in high school, her parents would allow her to miss classes to attend acting auditions in New York -- much to the chagrin of family friends.

"People thought my parents were nuts," she said. "I wasn't a good student, and their friends were like, 'I can't believe you're letting her leave school early to go to New York for auditions.' But {my parents} knew that that was the only thing I was good at, and it was the only thing that made me happy."

After graduation, Weil moved to New York, working odd jobs between auditions. Whatever marks her feature debut. It's also Skoog's directorial debut. Before turning to film, Skoog was a writer, producer, and director for such networks as TNT, MTV, VH1, CBS, and Turner Classic Movies.

"I always wanted to make films and ended up in TV," she said. "I didn't go to film school, so that was like my film school."

Already, Skoog's film is receiving praise for its gritty look at high school life. Weil, who made the film when she was 19 and just a year out of school, said: "If I saw the film in high school I would have done a lot of things differently.

"A lot of people relate to it. People really seem to be affected by it and touched by it, and that's very cool. A lot of people come up to me and say, 'That's my life.' "