Sometimes the most frustrating films aren’t the ones that fail outright, but rather the ones that show a great deal of promise but still fall short of success. I really wanted to enjoy the teen-girl-assassins action comedy Barely Lethal despite the mountain of negative reviews warning that I wouldn’t, but the movie at no point makes an effort to distinguish itself as a unique property worthy of praise. Even though I’ve never seen D.E.B.S. (I should fix that soon), I recognize that Barely Lethal has distinct origins in that film’s premise. It wants to be the next link in the Heathers-Clueless-Mean Girls high school clique comedy chain, but even The DUFF from earlier this year is more deserving of that honor. As far as being a female-led spoof of the superspy genre goes, Spy is a much better example from 2015. Hell, it’s not even the worst film featuring Thomas Mann from 2015 thanks to Me, Earl, and the Dying Girl (alternate title Me, Me, Me, and Me). Even the pun in the film’s title (a winkingly violent play on the porny idiom “barely legal”) falls short of establishing any kind of significance as it ends up meaning that the the girls are incompetent as killer spies, which was not at all the intended effect. Similarly, the film itself is barely lethal in its compromised tone, which is unfortunate given the possibilities in its killer teen girls premise.
Early in the proceedings I was willing to buck consensus on this one. The film begins by profiling a “top-secret, government-run school that turns little girls into killing machines”. Samuel L. Jackson (once again proving that he will star in anything) is fairly amusing as the top instructor at this trained killer production facility. His darkly comic commands that toddler age girls (or “Double 0 7-year olds”, if you will) operate machine guns & flamethrowers and to remember that while stabbing combatants”It’s all about putting holes in the subject. Ladies, spring some leaks!” are pretty damn amusing, but the feeling is fairly short-lived. The film mostly follows the story of one trainee instead of the institution as a whole, detailing the life of a teen assassin’s decision to fake her own death & attempt to lead a normal life as an American high school student. There is a lot of promise in this set-up, touched on just a tad when the protagonist complains that the cruelty of high school teens is far worse than being beaten or drowned, but it’s mostly wasted. Because she uses past high school clique comedies teen gossip rags as “intel” for “Mission: High School” (ugh) the film devolves into mostly empty, self-conscious references to films like 10 Things I Hate About You, The Breakfast Club, and (duh) Mean Girls. Even worse, it wastes a vicious rivalry between two teen girl assassins – a concept that should register as a super cool take on the genre – on a climactic catfight over a boy.
Like I said, the worst part about Barely Lethal is that it’s barely unenjoyable. I liked that it worked within the traditional high school rom com plot structure – in this case staging both a Big Party and a Big Dance climax – but it rarely took the opportunity to show its teeth within that frame. The exchange “I’m viral?” (referring to Internet fame, of course) “Like HPV”, a montage of two teens girling out over guns instead of a traditional dress-up sequence, and a conversation about how they “want the first time [they kill a man] to be special” are all a great start for a first draft, but they’re isolated moments in a film mired in wasted opportunities. Barely Lethal mostly felt like an underutilized cast (including Rob Huebel, Jessica Alba, Sophie Turner, and Rachel Harris) aching for a better movie to emerge in the editing room. With an R-rating instead of PG-13 & a harder edged re-write I could see Barely Lethal enduring as a cult classic As is, I’d suggest that you ‘d skip this one & watch D.E.B.S. instead. And again, just to be clear, I’ve never seen D.E.B.S..