RogerBW's Blog

Heathers 21 February 2022

1989 black comedy, dir. Michael Lehmann, Winona Ryder, Christian Slater: IMDb / allmovie. Veronica's part of the Top Clique, but isn't actually into pointless cruelty and drunken sex. New student JD seems to offer an alternative…

For me this is a film that gets most things right. Yes, it's the product of an era when the idea of someone bringing a gun to school was rare enough to be shocking, and it plays that somewhat for laughs; but that just makes one of the film's key points early, that the adults have no idea how to respond to anything unexpected except with platitude and cliché. Oh, it's teenage suicide; we've seen terribly serious TV programmes about this, and we know just how to wring our hands. And the kids are no better: the student journalist is exultant, "Westerburg finally got one of these things and I'm not going to blow it". Just like Hans Gruber, JD understands how people will react, and indeed relies on it.

This was a spec script by Daniel Waters in reaction to John Hughes teen comedies; it was his first script, and Lehmann's first film as director. And while they both went on to have non-trivial careers, this is definitely the film that stands out for both of them. It was also star-making for Ryder (who'd previously done Beetlejuice) and Slater (The Name of the Rose) – and arguably also Shannen Doherty as Heather Duke, who went from this to Beverly Hills 90210, but who apparently thought the film was a straight drama until she saw the final cut.

In a standard teen film, Veronica would be trying to get into the top clique; here she starts already in it, perhaps because that story has been done. Congratulations, you won; now what's the victory worth? The clique offers one pattern of behaviour, and JD offers another, but what Veronica comes to realise is that she has to make her own decisions about what to do, and then do it – which for me calls back to the accidental feminism of Blood Simple. (And Ryder moves very effectively from standard teenage expressions and body language to something more mature, particularly in the later sequences as she becomes increasingly dishevelled.)

It's dreamlike more than strictly realistic, and the electronic soundtrack by David Newman is a sad disappointment (I found it particularly intrusive during the sequences in the woods), but this is a film that overall works very well for me. It was a box-office failure, but an immediate success on VHS and Laserdisc; I wonder whether people felt more able to admit enjoyment watching on their own rather than "on show" with friends or family at a cinema, or perhaps something genuinely subversive just doesn't play well with the mainstream audience.

For me this is ancestral to those teen films that did something more than "woo, we are teenagers": The Craft, Ginger Snaps, Chastity Bites, Barely Lethal. If you don't already know it, well worth a look.

Once more if you want more of my witterings you should listen to Ribbon of Memes.

Tags: film reviews

See also:
The Craft
Barely Lethal
Chastity Bites
Blood Simple
Die Hard (1988)

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