It probably comes as no surprise that I am a man whose limited social media use includes following the Twitter accounts of several Buffy-related content producers. I used to follow the one and only Mrs. Sarah Michelle Gellar on Instagram until I got sad that her manager was making her do the same branded social media content that fame bottom feeders like Patreon-less YouTubers and people who make cakes that are 80% fondant are doing; I felt like Sideshow Bob shivering upon learning that “TV’s bottomless chum bucket [had] claimed Vanessa Redgrave.” No judgment on our adulated SMG, of course; I love her like Broadway queens love Patti LuPone. I’m just saying everybody needs to go stream BTVS on Hulu like, right now, so that she never has to do another one of those unless she actually wants to. So, of course when I heard that Her Excellency was going to be in a new movie that was being billed as the high school version of Strangers on a Train, and that I didn’t even have to leave the house to see it, well, of course I was going to.
At 28 minutes into Do Revenge, the traditionally attractive Drea (Camila Mendes, of Riverdale), having convinced gawkishly gorgeous Eleanor (Maya Hawke) to do revenge with her, gets excited:
Drea: First we have to fix (pulls Eleanor in front of a mirror) … this. We have to do—
Eleanor: Please don’t say “makeover.”
Drea: —a makeover! Yay! (jumps up and down)
Eleanor: (with vocal fry) Feels problematic.
Drea: It is, but it’s fun!
Do Revenge presents itself as a pretty conventional movie, and in many ways it is, despite its winking self-awareness that it’s trafficking in cliches. Prior to this scene, when Eleanor is offered a tour of her new high school, she responds “I mean, as a disciple of the ’90s teen movie, I would be offended if I didn’t get one.” It’s borrowing from a deep, deep well: high school-set literature adaptations, the sharp wit and ear for dialogue that permeates the mean girl movie canon, and revenge thrillers. The film opens with narration from Drea, who fills us in on how, from humble beginnings, she has clawed her way to the top of the social hierarchy at Rosewood Country Day, an elite private high school in the Miami area. “They all want me as a friend or a fuck,” she says. “I’m worshipped at Westerburg and I’m only a Junior.” Wait, no, shit, that’s Heather Chandler. The words are different, but the speech is the same: it’s the end of her junior year, and she’s done something or other with Teen Vogue. Her friends are mostly vapid hangers-on, and although she thinks of herself as a scrappy underdog, she’s just an Alpha Heather with good publicity. She’s also dating star student Max (Austin Abrams), a weaselly little rich boy who happens to be class president. Since they won’t be seeing each other, he asks her to send him a sexy video, which is then leaked to the whole school. She ends up painted as the aggressor when she punches Max in the quad, and it nearly costs her the scholarship she depends on.
Humiliated, Drea spends the summer friendless, working at a tennis camp for rich girls, a group that includes Eleanor. When the girls there also get their hands on the “leaked” video, Eleanor names Erica (Sophie Turner) as the distributor, and is impressed with how swiftly Drea ruins Erica’s life, planting cocaine on her and remaining calm in the face of Erica’s furious accusations. When Drea has car trouble at the end of the summer, Eleanor drives her back, and they bond, with Eleanor relating a particularly traumatizing story about being outed as queer by a girl she had a crush on, who also told gossipy lies about Eleanor being a predator. Eleanor also happens to be transferring to the same school as the girl who bullied her, which is also Rosewood Country Day. On the first day, Max gives a speech which appropriates the language of resistance in order to distance himself from accusations that he was the one who leaked Drea’s video, shames the people who shared and viewed the video, and humiliates Drea by making her stand up in the assembly. He also announces the formation of the new school club “The Cis Hetero Men Championing Female-Identifying Students League,” which is to be exclusively male and straight, for men to become better allies (I fear I’m underselling the intentional tastelessness and invoked odiousness here, but he’s just awful). Eleanor and Drea run into each other again in the bathroom, and agree to each do the other’s revenge: Drea will get close to and socially destroy Carissa (Ava Capri), the girl who outed and started rumors about Eleanor, and Eleanor will get close to Max and help Drea get her own vengeance, and then they act out the scene transcribed above.
You might be asking yourself where Sarah Michelle Gellar is in all of this; she’s the headmistress of the school who’s heavily invested in Drea’s academic success. Although her scenes are too few, too brief, and too infrequent (although every single entrance made me gasp and say “She looks amazing“), her presence is felt throughout the narrative, and that’s not just me singing her praises. All our favorites are here, blended into a pastel smoothie: one part Mean Girls if Janis Ian used to be Regina George; one part Jawbreaker if Vylette’s makeover was arranged by Julie in order to get back at Courtney; two parts Heathers if Veronica allied herself with Betty Finn instead of Jason Dean; there’s even a little zest of that scene in Cruel Intentions where Reese Witherspoon distributes copies of Ryan Phillipe’s catty little journal to the whole school, except this time it’s copies of Max’s data that proves he’s faking his apparent progressivism, from the top of his stupid earrings to the tips of his “masculinity reimagined” painted nails. And I’m not just projecting that; both movies use Fatboy Slim’s “Praise You,” for goodness’s sake. And that’s not even getting into the (frankly inspired) choice to have the school uniforms uniformly look like Cher Horowitz’s Martha’s Vineyard Easter attire (which gives the whole thing a D.E.B.S. flair). It’s like a greatest hits album, right up until the moment that it suddenly isn’t anymore: well-worn and funny until everything gets turned on its head. I won’t spoil the very Patricia Highsmith twist here, but it disrupts the complacency with the familiar into which the audience has been lulled in a clever way. You thought that just because there was a scene in this movie where someone gets a tour of all the school’s cliques like in She’s All That and Ten Things I Hate About You that it meant you were going to ride the whole thing out in your comfort zone, but there’s something fresh and new here, too.
I’m not really sure what demographic this movie is aiming for, but I’m in it. A few years back, I asked about the decade’s successor to the legacy of the Heathers -> Jawbreaker -> Mean Girls pipeline and nominated New Year, New You as the heir apparent, but there’s something new and fun here. This one is also theoretically aimed at the contemporary teen market, what with the inclusion of Riverdale‘s own Betty with Cabelo, Outer Banks hunk Jonathan Daviss, Alisha Boe from Thirteen Reasons Why, and Stranger Things actresses Hawke and Francesca Reale. (After the recent and dreadful He’s All That, I can only presume that the rest of the cast is filled with TikTokers and former Disney sitcom children.) At the same time, the soundtrack, like the films from which the narrative cribs, is very 90s focused. Aside from the aforementioned Fatboy Slim, the soundtrack also features tracks from The Cranberries, Meredith Brooks, Harvey Danger, the Symphonic Pops, and even The Mighty Mighty Bosstones, if you can believe it. Drea and Eleanor first bond while the dulcet tones of Third Eye Blind’s “How’s It Going To Be?”, and, because someone wanted to make me happy specifically, Le Tigre’s “Deceptacon.” And yet there’s also more contemporary music like Olivia Rodrigo and Billie Eilish (although the simple fact that I, a man in my thirties, knows them could mean that they are no longer cool).
-Mark “Boomer” Redmond