At a certain point in the 1990s, you couldn’t turn around without tripping over a movie with Christina Ricci in it. Whether that meant her popular young adult roles in films like The Addams Family or Now and Again in the early part of the decade or her more mature indie work in The Ice Storm and Buffalo ‘66 toward its end, there was a time when it felt like the actress was literally everywhere. (And that time was freaking great, to be clear.) But then it just seemed as though she…wasn’t.
That Ricci—and several other ‘90s It Girls like her, from Juliette Lewis to Winona Ryder and even Alicia Silverstone—seemed to essentially disappear after the turn of the millennium is the sort of inexplicable tragedy the film industry often seems to visit upon women who are deemed too difficult, too strange or too generally weird for traditional mainstream success. And Ricci’s always been sort of weird in the best possible ways, frequently drawn to complicated, offbeat characters with dark and moody underpinnings. Perhaps a more traditional sort of career would have never been in the cards for her, even in the best of circumstances. But, thankfully, many of these women (including Ricci herself) have found comeback vehicles in recent years as we all reckon with many of the terrible choices and assumptions we made about “difficult” or “different” women in the ‘90s.
Showtime’s Yellowjackets has become one of the few genuine word of mouth television hits in recent memory, with its twisty dual timeline mysteries and uncomfortable hints of cannibalism. Ricci’s performance as the deliciously unhinged yet strangely compelling Misty Quigley is a big part of the reason why.
Yellowjackets’ success has catapulted the actress back into the public eye in a way that her roles in lesser series like The Lizzie Borden Chronicles or Z: The Beginning of Everything failed to, and as a result, it finally feels like we’re getting the Ricci Renaissance we’ve all waited the better part of two decades to see. (Did I shriek a little when she also popped up in The Matrix Resurrections out of nowhere? Absolutely. What a time to be alive!)
But though Ricci’s buzzy Yellowjackets role (pun very much intended) may have landed her back on the path toward the mainstream success that has so often eluded her, Misty is hardly the first time she’s managed to give a character who initially seems like a complete sociopath compelling and occasionally even sympathetic layers. Ricci’s performance as the sullen, unlikeable teen narrator of the 1998 dark comedy The Opposite of Sex earned her an Independent Spirit Award nomination for the deft way it both skewers and subverts established expectations about what this kind of movie should be and do. Even now it remains a film that entirely too few people have actually seen.
Don Roos’ directorial debut is, as the title suggests, an exploration of sex, relationships and the stupid, selfish decisions we frequently make in the name of our attraction to others. Yet, it’s also a surprisingly hopeful and affecting affirmation of love in all its forms, though its soft and sentimental heart comes thoroughly coated with an outer shell of pitch-black cynicism. Hilarious, awful, and strangely heartfelt by turns, it’s a film that’s part femme fatale parody, part quippy teen drama and part road trip heist adventure, complete with a Friends actress (Lisa Kudrow, in what is still probably her best role to date) and a country music star (Lyle Lovett) thrown on top.
Ricci plays sixteen-year-old Dedee Truitt, a foul-mouthed, chain-smoking troublemaker from Creve Coeur, Louisiana (“Which is French, I think, for like ‘fucked heart’,” she deadpans in one of her many snide asides to the audience) who doesn’t believe in anything except herself. Yet, she still longs for something more than a boyfriend with only one testicle in a dead-end small town, so she runs away to find her gay half-brother Bill (Martin Donovan), a high school teacher in idyllic suburban Indiana.
Once there, Dedee proceeds to systematically ruin the lives of everyone she comes into contact with, seducing her brother’s hot-but-dumb boyfriend Matt (Ivan Sergei) and running off with him, but not before robbing Bill and inadvertently kicking off a major scandal with one of his former students (Johnny Galecki) that could cost him his job. She also steals the ashes of Bill’s dead boyfriend (Colin Ferguson)—whom Dedee refers to exclusively as “Tom the Dead Guy”—which she then attempts to use to extort even more money from her brother. All of this done, ostensibly, for the benefit of the baby she’s telling everyone is somehow Matt’s. Dedee is, as my Southern grandmother would have put it, a real piece of work.
Yet, it’s to Ricci’s credit that Dedee ends up being something much more compelling and nuanced than the monster she often appears to be. Her voice, more than anything else, frames the movie we’re watching: A sly, self-aware deconstruction of the same tropes that so often power popular coming-of-age movies. As heroines go, Dedee is a pretty terrible one—disaffected, sarcastic and often downright mean. She feels nothing but contempt for the stereotypical struggling teens who so often appear in films like this, troubled lost souls with hearts of gold who magically become better people over the course of a two-hour runtime.
That’s not how life works, on-screen or off, and Dedee knows it, though she’s certainly willing to take advantage of others’ idealism when it suits her. And, truly, there’s something wonderfully freeing about watching a heroine who declares that “if you think I’m just plucky and scrappy and all I need is love, you’re in over your head” within the first five minutes of her story.
Granted, not everything about The Opposite of Sex has aged well. Dedee’s blatant homophobia feels painfully dated, as does the fact that the film clearly expects the audience to gleefully laugh at her uncouth AIDS jokes. That said, the movie is surprisingly progressive, and eventually shows us a Dedee who, if not outright regrets some of her more overtly discriminatory comments, at least has come to realize that the world is wide enough to contain more nuance and possibility for goodness than she’d initially imagined.
Much like her current turn on Yellowjackets, Ricci’s performance in The Opposite of Sex is remarkable for its almost total lack of sentimentality. (Something Misty would likely hate as much as Dedee.) No one is asked or expected to feel sorry for Dedee and the film repeatedly acknowledges how toxic much of her attitude and behavior is. Yet, there’s still something compelling, relatable, even vulnerable at the center of this movie and its leading lady—and whether you love or hate her by the time the final credits roll, you certainly won’t forget her (or the woman who plays her).
Lacy Baugher Milas is a digital producer by day, but a television enthusiast pretty much all the time. Her writing has been featured in Collider, IGN, Screenrant, The Baltimore Sun and others. Literally always looking for someone to yell about Doctor Who and/or CW superhero properties with, you can find her on Twitter @LacyMB.