in defence of Keith

Keith is a small indie high-school-drama-chick-flick that totally won me over a couple of years ago. I absolutely love it. And I don’t know a single other person who absolutely loves it.

Which makes me wonder what’s wrong with my taste in movies. I decided to work out why I think it’s so great. This is what I came up with:

Firstly, it’s a reverse Cinderella-story. This trope will get me every time. Instead of a lowly cinder girl who becomes a princess, we have a popular girl who loses her popularity as she finds herself.

I’ll try and give a run-down of the story without giving away any big spoilers, because even though the stats say you’re not going to love it, I say you should give it a shot.

Natalie is beautiful, popular and smart. She’s on her way to getting a scholarship to Duke based on her mad tennis skills. She’s focussed and she’s in control. When a hot South American kid transfers to their school, everything looks perfect.

Except that this weedy nobody called Keith has decided, for some reason, to make a project of her.

He’s her new lab partner, and he confounds her. He doesn’t do anything the way you’re supposed to, and she finds herself dropping bowling balls in people’s front yards at four in the morning in an attempt to keep up. She finds herself at many crossroads. She finds herself.

But there’s something going on with Keith that he’s not telling her. Everything about him that drew her in – the game-playing and fast-talking, the constant enigma of him – becomes the thing that stops her from being able to get at the boy inside, and whatever’s going on with him.

The only thing Keith didn’t count on was that she would be…amazing. That instead of simply confounding her he would help her open up. That she would find this person inside who would never give up on him.

Ha. Good non-spoilery synopsis, right? Bet you’re just a little bit intrigued…

Okay. The next thing I love about it: Natalie’s hot boyfriend Raf is already becoming a man. He has the big, strong build, he knows exactly what he wants out of life, and he’s getting the grades to make it a reality. He’s charming, funny and sexy. Opposite that you have Keith: still a boy. Small and dark and dressed in clothes from K-mart, with rips in the knees. He doesn’t stand a chance in comparison. And yet he has this fascinating mind – this way of challenging the world – that makes Raf inconsequential.

When Keith kisses Natalie – and it’s only brief – it devastates her. Because Keith, who shouldn’t matter at all, is like no-one else she’s ever met.

I want to stop for a second a try to drive this point home even more. When I was interning at Allen and Unwin I read a lot of manuscripts, and a criticism I made of every single one was: “I can’t see why this character is important. What do they allow in the protagonist that no-one else in their life allows in them? What do they let us see? What makes only this person in all the world important?” It’s a difficult thing to write – transformative relationships, that are specific to only two people in all the world. Keith manages it. It shows you how the insides are more important than the outsides without preaching for a second – just by making you know, feel, that there is no other way it could be.

Another great thing: Natalie is being everything she knows she’s meant to be. When she first meets Raf she is coy and flirtatious. She knows exactly how to show him she’s interested, and exactly what’s between them. They recognise the obvious mate in each other. She is never like that with Keith, because he isn’t anything she recognises in her world-paradigm. She never uses her feminine wiles – her learned behaviour. They are equals in a powerful way she’ll never be with Raf.

I don’t mean that Raf holds more power in their relationship – I think I mean the opposite. She condescends to him in a way, by playing the gender game. She has him all sussed in her head, so she is never going to be entirely genuine, entirely herself with him.

So as things progress with Keith her learned behaviour starts falling apart. The things that aren’t essentially important to her start falling away. She wonders, for the first time, whether she’d rather go to a cheaper school and get a job than kill herself playing tennis for hours every day. And as she leaves her social paradigm behind, it turns on her as well – it sees her as a foreign thing that it can no longer understand. This isn’t done in a black-and-white way, just in a way that felt very true. Natalie is leaving behind the performed identity of high school and becoming her own person, which challenges those who are still fully invested in it.

This movie is a little low budget, a little amateurish maybe, but I think there’s some wonderful stuff in the writing. One of my favourite exchanges:

Keith: So they basically give you money for hitting a ball over a net.

Natalie: Something like that – where did you apply?

Keith: Nowhere.

Natalie: You’re not going to college…

Keith: Not in the Judeo-Christian sense, no, I’m not.

There are details right at the edge of the story that are never spelled out and are beautifully present. Natalie’s brother is a loser. He’s more the Keith type than the Raf type. He doesn’t fit into the parents’ expectations. He and Natalie have a strong, sympathetic relationship (if you pay attention during the scene where Raf’s invited to dinner and is keeping up polite chatter with the parents, you see Natalie and her brother politely passing each other the green beans, over and over and over again). This shows us that Natalie’s life is not so perfect as it seems, and that there is another side of her that doesn’t get expressed when she is being Miss Perfect.

Another writing moment I love is when Keith calls Natalie at home, out of the blue. She hangs up and is deep in thought when her mum arrives on the scene. Mum asks who was on the phone then says, “Did you have a nice time?” Natalie nods, and Mum asks, “What’s his name again?” to which Natalie says, “Keith,” still in her thoughts, as though trying to figure out the puzzle that is this boy. There’s a moment of confusion, because Keith is obviously not a South American name. Natalie’s mind is not where it’s “meant” to be. It is occupied with what challenges and delights her.

This is by no means a perfect movie – but for me it hits all the right marks.

Comments 5 Responses

  1. Alex

    Was home alone last night and remembering your post I watched it. Agree with you, it’s wonderful without falling into stereotypes. I especially appreciated that Raf wasn’t portrayed as the stupid jock just so Keith would look better in comparison.

    For a moment there I was afraid that Keith was the male equivalent of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl (, but no, there’s something more to him. A MPDG would never get close to Natalie for Keith’s reasons.

    PS: Also noticed the green beans – funny!
    PPS: Couldn’t help but think of Twilight during the lab scenes 🙂

  2. Mandy

    urghhhh this is the best movie i have ever seen in my life and i’m glad someone appreciates it the same way i do. it really drove home for me and got me to think in a way i never have before. never have i felt this way about a movie before. i’ve cried hours just thinking about keith and natalie’s story. it was a simple and low budget film but it was perfect and it hurt like hell. <3

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