By now, Heathers has surely gotten its full due as a cult classic in terms of its delicious visual aesthetics & eternal quotability. It’s even earned its own Broadway musical adaptation, so there should be nowhere left for its “cult” legacy to go. I still don’t think we’ve fully reckoned with how well balanced the tone of Heathers is, though, especially as a feat of screenwriting. Daniel Waters’s playful, sardonic cruelty is a deceptively tricky balancing act to properly execute, which is glaringly apparent when you look at the film’s dark teen comedy imitators in the late 1990s & early 2000s. Drop Dead Gorgeous is the most accomplished imitator to the throne, with the biggest laughs & most keenly pointed satirical eye of any post-Heathers high school cruelty comedy. It’s also a film that chooses some hideously misjudged moments to punch down, particularly at the expense of anorexic teens & the mentally disabled. For its part, Jawbreaker evolves the highly stylized visual whimsy of Heathers into a candy-coated fantasy all of its own, but its callous humor about sexual assault & physical abuse leaves an unignorably sour taste. However, neither of those examples conveys the high wire balancing act of the post-Heathers teen cruelty comedy quite as succinctly as Sugar & Spice.
Sugar & Spice is an absurdly bubbly, flippantly cruel teen comedy about bank-robbing cheerleaders. Its 1960s Archie Comics stylization is infectiously fun & energizing, complete with collage-style pop art screen wipes that nearly push the film into surreal, dreamlike territory. Its story of teen sweethearts whose rosy vision of the world harshly clashes with reality when they unexpectedly become pregnant offers a great satirical core for its humor, and the transgression of high school cheerleaders robbing a bank to solve that problem is sublime. Best yet, the movie is only 81min long, cramming as many goofs, gags, and one-liners as it can into every beat without wasting the audience’s time on superfluous details like thoughts or feelings. The only problem, really, is that the film is viciously homophobic. This is a mainstream, PG-13 comedy where f-bombs are carefully avoided so as not to upset the schoolmarms at the MPAA, but homophobic slurs are tossed in every direction like confetti. The only gay character in the film is a one-note visual gag: a male cheerleader who occasionally catapults into the frame to be called a “fag” and promptly dismissed. And then come the flood of prison rape jokes as the girls research their bank heist schemes among inmates at a women’s prison. Hilarious!
At first, the film’s tonal missteps seem to result from a poor choice in narrator: a small-minded rival of the bankrobbing teens who rats them out to the FBI out of petty jealousy. Watching a room full of middle-aged men listen to a bratty child endlessly monologue about the intricacies of cheerleader squad drama is hilarious, but choosing the least likeable character in the film to narrate often tilts the tone into sour territory, especially considering that character’s raging homophobia. You can’t blame all of the film’s misfired cruelty on the villain, however. The girls we’re supposed to be cheering for eventually prove to be just as guilty, calling the film’s politics into question not the characters’. The weirdest thing about that POV is that Sugar & Spice is otherwise perfectly calibrated for a dedicated queer fandom. It’s already practically a mash-up of Point Break & Bring It On, which sounds like a mad scientist experiment to create the perfect Gay Movie Night go-to. This is a film where James Marsden is ogled as a star-quarterback himbo, Madonna lyrics are treated as literal gospel, and teenage girls commit crimes while wearing knock-off Barbie masks. It’s also a film that frequently dehumanizes the exact target audience who would find those details fabulous for the sake of a cheap gag (or ten).
So yes, Sugar & Spice gleefully shares in the Jawbreaker & Drop Dead Gorgeous problem in that it can be a little too mean in spots; it may even be the meanest picture of the three. It’s also like those movies in that I love it anyway, which only makes me cringe harder when it spectacularly fucks up the balance of its tone. It’s certainly no Heathers, although over-written one-liners like “It was like he was a piece of chocolate and the entire school was on the rag” suggest that it very much wanted to be. If I’ve learned anything from loving these flawed teen cruelty comedies over the years, it’s that Heathers, although enduringly popular, was much more singularly skillful than could ever be fully acknowledged, especially in its mastery of tone.
One of my favorite filmmaking trends over the past decade has been how the visual gimmickry of found-footage horror has kept up with the evolving user interface of social media platforms & personal tech. The way Unfriended documents late nights on Skype, how Sickhouse reimagines The Blair Witch Project as a series of Snapchat posts, or how Cam turns an OnlyFans camgirl session into a surrealist nightmare have all been uniquely fascinating to me, among other examples. The one major social media platform I’ve never seen a horror film tackle through this evolving gimmick is Twitter. This immediately makes sense, as the mostly text-based platform isn’t especially suited to the visual medium of cinema the way, say, CandyCrush or Instagram or a Facebook timeline are. Still, you’d think some gimmicky schlock horror would have tried to make a spooky Twitter feed movie by now (even if I’d be the only opening weekend audience they could pull).
I did happen to find a movie that adapts the feel of scrolling through a Twitter feed into its in-the-moment narrative; it just happened to be in an entirely different genre. Mary is Happy, Mary is Happy. is a Thai coming-of-age drama about a listless teenage girl’s uneventful senior year of high school. Its narrative and dialogue were directly adapted from 410 consecutive tweets on an anonymous teen girl’s Twitter account, credited to @marylony. It’s an experimental work in some ways, allowing the jarring tonal shifts of reading a Twitter feed from bottom to top to dictate its moment-to-moment whims, but it somehow never spirals out into total mayhem. For the most part, the film plays like any other high school indie drama about teen-girl boredom & ennui. It just frequently interrupts that familiar tone & setting with the out-of-left field topics of its Twitter account source material, establishing a kind of minimalist absurdism that feels very reminiscent of early-era Twitter, when the site was mostly a platform for users to publish passing thoughts, no matter how inane (as opposed to now, where it’s more of a tool for self-promotion & political mobilization).
The referenced tweets from the @marylony account appear onscreen as if they were Silent Era title cards, punctuated by the clacking sounds of a desktop keyboard. Many of these dispatches from a teen girl’s mind are motivational platitudes like “Stand your ground”, “Practice leads to improvement”, and “Everything takes time” – lofty sentiments that help the titular Mary get through the boredom of a typical school day, but don’t mean much to the audience that trails behind her. Others have a more literal, immediate effect on the plot. When Mary muses out of boredom “I want a jellyfish” in a tweet, a FedEx package instantly arrives on her doorstep. When she writes “So lucky” she stumbles upon a duffle bag full of cash. When she mysteriously tweets “Today in France” she’s suddenly moping about Paris instead of her Thai boarding school, no questions asked. The film mostly sticks to a low-key, low-energy mode of absurdism, though, not taking the bait when tweets like “I’m living in multiple realms” or “Is my heart large enough for the world?” invite a Michel Gondry-scale twee fantasy tangent that the film’s budget and high school drama boundaries can’t afford.
I love that writer-director Nawapol Thamrongrattanarit experimented with how to adapt the look & feel of a Twitter feed into cinematic language, even if he did so outside my beloved Evil Tech horror subgenre. Mary is Happy, Mary is Happy. has no real overriding conflicts or excitement to it outside that central experiment. We mostly watch a sweet, average high school senior navigate low-stakes romantic crushes, yearbook committee deadlines, and authoritarian school administrators in an effort to fill her days. It’s the exact kind of nothing-going-on adolescent boredom that would inspire someone to spend all day on Twitter, broadcasting every errant thought out into the void in hopes that a resulting notification would spark some much-needed dopamine. The only fault with the film, really, is that it’s over two hours long, which is pushing how much listless teenage melancholy anyone can pay full attention to in one sitting. I enjoyed the movie a great deal as a lighthearted narrative experiment, but if it were closer to the 70-80min range I might be totally swooning over it as an Online Cinema masterpiece.
I was lodged so embarrassingly deep in the target demographic for the 1998 Robert Rodriguez creature feature The Faculty that I spent my pre-teen allowance money on its soundtrack CD. The first time I heard Alice Cooper’s “Eighteen” was as a Creed cover on that soundtrack, years before the band re-branded as Christian Rock. The movie that soundtrack was cross-promoting was a blatant attempt to update the Invasion of the Body Snatchers alien-takeover template for the post-Scream era. Its Kevin Williamson-penned screenplay even features a lengthy discussion of Body Snatchers lore, leaning into the writer’s weakness for self-referential pop culture meta-analysis. As with Williamson’s work on Scream, I Know What You Did Last Summer, and Cursed, this winking at-the-camera dialogue is delivered by hip, young teen actors (Josh Harnett, Elijah Wood, Clea Duvall, Jordana Brewster, Usher, etc.) to appeal directly to a high school age crowd with an expendable income – the same teen-cool throwback aesthetic that currently fuels The CW’s Riverdale. Between those just-barely-older-than-me movie stars, their weirdly horny relationship with the adult staff, the film’s gateway introduction to sci-fi themed gore & body horror, and the marketing’s hard-rock posturing, I was helpless to resist the allure of The Faculty. But it turns out my vulnerability as the film’s target demographic runs even deeper than that.
The central threat in this drive-in era creature feature throwback is an invading alien force that burrows deep into the brains of its human hosts – turning them into mind-controlled Lovecraftian monsters who hide in plain sight as suburban high school teachers. The intended menace of this transformation is the spread & enforcement of Conformity, a satirical target that would have loudly spoken to me as a preteen nü-metal shithead (and one that’s increasingly hilarious in retrospect, given the characters’ unanimous modeling & marketing of a Tommy Hilfiger wardrobe). However, because of all the stylized, teen-targeted cool of this sci-fi mayhem, the alien creatures themselves register mostly as badass, fist-pumping payoffs worthy of celebration – especially in moments that opt for practical effects gore over CG rendering. The only aspect of The Faculty that can remain genuinely creepy, then, is the behavior those creatures illicit in their titular school staff hosts. Yet, even those results are varied on a pure horror scale, as the movie insists that the women on the school staff transform into horned-up dominatrix types rather than personality-free Conformity ghouls – upping the film’s appeal to hormonally-addled teens but muting its potential for genuine terror. One major member of the staff sidesteps that horny makeover entirely, though: the high school sports coach, played by the liquid Terminator himself, Robert Patrick. He remains an absolute fucking nightmare, no matter how goofy or dated the film might feel elsewhere.
Part of the coach’s terrifying presence in the film is due to Patrick’s hyper-masculine performance as an emotionless hard ass; part of it is that his gender allowed him to avoid the inhibiting sexualization that dampened the presence of fellow castmates like Selma Hayek & Famke Jensen. For me, personally, though, what’s really terrifying about Patrick’s onscreen menace as a rage-filled monster is that it recalls every single relationship I had with a high school or middle school PE coach growing up. As the kind of wimpy indoor kid who’d much rather watch horror movies than play football, I consistently had combative relationships with PE coaches throughout my educational career. I was terrified of them; they were not at all amused by me either. This culminated in being kicked out of PE entirely in my senior year of high school, when the coach reassigned me to library duty for that period (a blessing he foolishly coded as a punishment) and told me I would only pass if he never had to see or talk to me again. Watching Robert Patrick bully the similarly wimpy, unathletic Elijah Wood for daring to eat lunch alone on his football field was a vivid flashback to that conflict. When the coach jokingly recruits the nerd for track & field, Wood protests “I don’t think a person should run unless he’s being chased.” The coach retorts, “Get out of here,” ushering the twerp out of his macho domain. I’ve thankfully never had a coach follow up that conflict with an act of physical violence (represented here in Lovecraftian tentacled monstrosities), but I always feared that transgression was imminent, so this particular coach-wimp relationship dynamic taps into a very specific source of fear long buried in my past.
Of course, a burgeoning horror film nerd having a combative relationship with a high school sports coach is not all that unique to my own lived experience. If anything, centering the film’s source of terror on a scary macho football coach is just as blatant in appealing to a specific target demographic as the hip-teen casting & soundtrack contributions from then-bankable bands like Stabbing Westward & The Offspring. You can feel that screenplay-level machination in the way Patrick’s character is broadly portrayed as a sports coach archetype. He’s referred to simply as Coach and is an instructor in seemingly every sport played at the school: football, track, swimming, basketball, etc. Like Terry Quinn’s iconic performance as the archetypal Stepfather or Corbin Bersen’s skin-crawling performance as the archetypal Dentist, Robert Patrick transforms the broad concept of the high school sports Coach into a classic movie monster abomination on the level of Dracula, Frankenstein’s monster, or The Wolfman. It would have robbed the film of some of its other post-Scream late-90s charms and transformed the endeavor into something much more thoroughly horrifying, but I think they could have easily reworked the entire premise to be about that one monstrous villain alone – under the title The Coach. His performance is that scary, and the real-life terror of sports coaches runs psychologically deep for many horror nerds – something I had forgotten until I was confronted by the menace of this particular space alien bully all over again.
I’m genuinely shocked by how few times I’ve seen the 1999 high school murder comedy Jawbreaker compared to other films in its same wheelhouse. This is far from the pinnacle of the post-Heathers teen girl cruelty satire, but I’m still close enough to dead center in its target demographic that it should have been a teen-years favorite for me. Was it merely the happenstance that Drop Dead Gorgeous was the murderous-teen-girls high school comedy that found its way onto Blockbuster’s used VHS liquidation tables at the right moment that made that one a go-to standard for me instead? Both films are deeply flawed for sure, but I could never tell exactly why one was a beloved favorite that I looped into dust while the other was a film that I occasionally ran across here or there. In retrospect, I think it’s mostly because the appeal of Drop Dead Gorgeous is instantly recognizable; the low-key absurdism of its femmed-up Christopher Guest mockumentary schtick strikes a somewhat familiar tone, no matter how ill-behaved its amorality can be from gag to gag. The specificity of Jawbreaker’s appeal was a little more obscured & difficult to pin down for me, but it finally clicked on my most recent rewatch (only my second or third experience with the film, somehow): it’s Gay.
More specifically, Jawbreaker is perversely funny for having teenage high school girls deliver dialogue obviously written by adult gay men. Judging by writer-director Darren Stein’s work on explicitly gay projects like the queer screwball high school comedy G.B.F. (Gay Best Friend) and the drag queen horror comedy All About Evil, he knew exactly what he was doing here. The dissonance of Jawbreaker is that the Teen Girl actors tasked to deliver his Gay Man dialogue don’t know what they’re communicating at all; it’s as if they’re phonetically speaking a foreign language for the very first time. The result is a bizarre comedy that is paradoxically both over-written and under-performed, which makes it exceedingly difficult to connect with if you aren’t aware of the reason for that disconnect. Once you realize the film is basically the preemptive drag parody of itself, however, everything clicks into place. It becomes clear why all the girls are breathlessly horny for each other, why they use the word “kink” every other sentence, why they emphasize the pet names “Honey” and “Bitch” with such withering sass, and why the film’s only genuine sex scene revolves around a jock hunk fellating a popsicle. It’s Gay™.
One thing both Jawbreaker and Drop Dead Gorgeous get exactly right about the post-Heathers mean-girl high school comedy template is the callous cruelty, something not all its descendants have the stomach to commit to. In this case, Stein specifically zeroed in on the Corn Nuts gag from the iconic Daniel Waters screenplay, a sequence in which a beloved prom queen chokes to death in a prank gone horribly wrong. In Jawbreaker, the most popular girl in school is “kidnapped” by her friends as a prank for her 17th birthday, gagged with the titular candy to muffle her screams of protest. When she chokes to death on the giant ball of sugar in the trunk of their car, they decide to restage her death as a rape & murder case at the hands of a stranger, and their lies eventually overwhelm them in a haphazard cover-up. This mostly manifests in them bribing the school’s most reclusive werido nerd (played by Judy Greer, somewhere under a pile of oversized wigs & sweaters) with a hot-girl makeover. They help her navigate being on top of the clique culture food chain that once buried her (pointing out such adorable social distinctions as The Karen Carpenter Table in the cafeteria) while also coaching her in how to lie to the homicide detective who investigates their friend’s death (Pam Grier, forever a badass). Unbeknownst to anyone involved, they also teach her the ways of Adult Gay Man sass & slang in exchanges like “Life’s a bitch and then you die.” “No, honey, you’re the bitch.” Did I mention that this film is Gay?
Besides its post-Heathers cruelty and its preemptive drag parody humor, Jawbreaker is most enjoyable for its bubblegum pop art aesthetic. It’s a film that’s firmly rooted in a 90s high school comedy patina (after all, it’s one of two 1999 films in which The Donnas play the climactic prom), but its candy-coated surface also has a distinctive retro appeal to it. In that way, I’d almost more readily recommend it to fans of the Sexy Archie update Riverdale than to anyone looking for more of a Drop Dead Gorgeous sensibility. If nothing else, Rose McGowan exudes some real Cheryl Blossom energy in her role as the school’s queen bee, and the cheekily named Reagan High setting shares an R letterman patch with the classic Riverdale uniform. Sometimes this heightened rot-your-teeth pop aesthetic shines beautifully, like in several surreal sequences where the titular jawbreaker makes its way through a giallo-lit candy factory or rotates in the air like a planetary orb. Sometimes it falls embarrassingly flat, as in the obnoxious screen-wipes that frequently interrupt the dialogue or the visible boom mic that dips into the cafeteria tour. Either way, the film shares the clueless-teens-delivering-Adult-Gay-Man-dialogue dissonance that also makes Riverdale weirdly enjoyable, which manifests here in strange touches like the casting of legends like P.J. Soles & Carol Kane or in throwaway references to Barbara Streisand’s “On a Clear Day You Can See Forever” for no reason in particular. It’s disorienting, but it helps distinguish Jawbreaker as having a distinct flavor within the post-Heathers teen cruelty pantheon. I still don’t love it as much as Drop Dead Gorgeous, but I at least now clearly recognize its appeal as The Gay One in its genre.
Is there such a thing as low-key camp or subtly played melodrama? Are those descriptors too oxymoronic to effectively describe anything? I’m picturing the “silent runners” window blinds subplot of Twin Peaks, Laura Dern’s monologue about the robins in Blue Velvet, the thin barrier between humor & heartbreak in The Elephant Man. Basically, anytime a David Lynch movie makes you laugh but you can’t pinpoint exactly why. The D.I.Y. teen mystery Knives & Skin operates entirely within this difficult-to-define subtle melodrama paradigm, somehow sustaining the quiet, off-putting humor of the silent runners gag for its entire runtime. It filters the Lynch Lite teen melodrama of Riverdale through a hallucinatory overdose of cough medicine, so that it sticks with you only as a half-remembered dream. You can recall laughing, but you’re not entirely sure why, or whether that was even its desired effect.
Much like Twin Peaks, the premise of Knives & Skin concerns the disappearance and possible murder of small-town teen Carolyn Harper, whose sudden absence shakes the foundations of her community. Unlike Twin Peaks, the film has very little interest in building mystery or menace around that disappearance. We all know exactly what happened to Carolyn Danvers & who was involved. The only mystique at play is in puzzling our way through other characters’ erratic expressions of grief in the weeks following the incident. If your favorite touches to Twin Peaks were the silent runners or the creamed corn or the fish in the percolator or Leland singing “Mairzy Doats,” you’re likely to be tickled by the quietly absurdist character quirks that run throughout Knives & Skin. Mothers dress in their daughters’ clothes and wander around wielding giant bread knives in a total daze; birthday clowns attentively perform cunnilingus full make-up; high school Beaver mascots trade mixtapes to cheerleaders in exchange for alcohol-soaked tampons. It’s a deceptively wild, over-the-top film, considering how much of it is communicated in hushed, sleepy tones.
Since it isn’t especially invested in its own central mystery and filters everything though a lethargic camp remove, this is a film that lives & dies by its aesthetic. There were some audible grumblings from the more macho end of our Overlook Film Festival audience about how it was the worst film they’ve ever seen at the fest, but I also heard other people say it was their favorite feature they saw all weekend. That harsh divide makes total sense. This is not crafted to satisfy your traditional Horror Bro. It feels like a murder mystery novel that was scribbled into a bejeweled Trapper Keeper with scented gel pens. Every single frame is bathed in bisexual crosslighting. The few possessions Carolyn Danvers leaves behind magically glow like fluorescent highlighters. Her classmates often breaks into acapella choir arrangements of 80s pop songs like “Our Lips are Sealed” and “Blue Monday.” It’s a gloomy, but aggressively femme teen aesthetic, as if Lost River were made by Ryan Gosling’s adoring superfans instead of the heartthrob himself.
I’m not exactly sure what Knives & Skin is trying to accomplish. In brief flashes it discusses parental grief, sex work, mental illness, enthusiastic consent, and how talented clowns are at giving head, but never with anything clear or nuanced to say. I still very much appreciated it as a beautiful, delirious slow-drift though a Teen Lynch aesthetic, though, especially once I realized how much it was antagonizing the more macho end of the room. I’m still not confident in saying there is such a thing as low-key camp or subtle melodrama, but if they do exist this movie is steeped in them – like so many alcohol-soaked tampons.
Listening to an interview with Kay Cannon promoting her film Blockers on Ira Madison III’s Keep It podcast, it was exciting to hear her acknowledge the film’s intended purpose as a major studio femme subversion of the losing-your-virginity teen sex comedy. The teen sex comedy is just dripping with machismo as a medium, as it’s most clearly defined by the bro-friendly boundaries of titles like Superbad, American Pie, and Porky’s. As many of my recent favorite comedies have been femme subversions of traditionally macho subjects (The Bronze & Wetlands being particular standouts), I 100% welcome Blockers as a continued corrective to the exhausting omnipresence of bro sex humor. However, I do wish Blockers wasn’t being critically framed as an innovator within that corrective, since that claim ignores 2013’s already criminally overlooked The To Do List. Another sex-positive, femme subversion of the raunchy, losing-our-virginity sex comedy, The To Do List was critically buried upon its initial release for its perceived overreliance on 90s nostalgia to sell its humor. Every passing year it becomes increasingly difficult to fathom caring about such a triviality, especially when you consider the film’s other virtues. If we can forgive the cult classic Romy & Michele’s High School Reunion for featuring adult comedians reliving their 1980s heyday in extended flashbacks, I‘d like to think we can accept The To Do List expanding that bit into the next decade, especially considering the level of talent on-hand: Bill Hader, Andy Samberg, Donald Glover, Lauren Lapkus, D’Arcy Carden, Alia Shawkat, and (in the starring role) Aubrey Plaza. The To Do List is overdue for critical reappraisal as a modern comedy sleeper, both on its own terms and as an active subversion of the same teen sex comedy tropes challenged by Blockers.
Aubrey Plaza stars in The To Do List as a high school valedictorian who fears her dedication to book-smarts has left her unprepared for practical social interactions. Most significantly, she expects college to be a nonstop orgiastic bacchanal that she will be out of the loop for as a nerdy virgin who hasn’t even shared a kiss. As an overachiever, she attempts to correct this problem by dedicating the entire summer before college to methodical, scientific sexual experimentation. It’s a plan that extends beyond shedding her virginity to include activities most high school students wouldn’t dream of attempting: rimming, motorboating, pearl necklaces, etc. This pursuit of sexual experience leads to inevitable John Hughesian tropes of Plaza’s in-over-her-head protagonist being confronted with the choice between two suitors: the “bad boy” she lusts for and the “good guy” who longs after her. In that moment of crisis, she smartly chooses neither, pointing out the impermanence & ultimate insignificance of most high school flings. Sex is paradoxically explained to not be a big deal, but also requiring careful consideration for your partners’ feelings. It’s a complex, but necessary lesson for high school kids to learn, one coupled with matter-of-fact statements of sexual intent & partners’ enthusiastic consent. A large portion of the plot is also dedicated to three teen girls’ lifelong friendship and their frequently thwarted plans to watch a rented VHS copy of Beaches together at some point during their last summer before college. Blockers explores a very similar friendship dynamic, although it admittedly better spreads the narrative focus around to each member of the group (and the overprotective anxieties of their respective parents). Both films are thoughtful explorations of femme teen sexuality & friendships without feeling at all leering or exploitative, likely in part because they were both helmed by women (The To Do List was written & directed by Maggie Carey).
The charm of both Blockers & The To Do List is that their sex-positive politics & wholesome emotional indulgences are allowed to co-exist with the typical gross-out gags that accompany the raunchy teen sex comedy. Although it tends to cater to straight male sensibilities, this is a genre that owes its space under the mainstream comedy umbrella to the raucous envelope-pushers of John Waters’s early career, particularly Pink Flamingos (even if by way of its influence on the Farrelly Brothers). Blockers goes for broke in its own gross-out moments of teen puke & butt-chugged beers, but The To Do List hits even closer to home in echoing its Pink Flamingos roots by depicting Aubrey Plaza defiantly chomping on a turd. Cinema is beautiful, y’all. Both films also mine a lot of awkward humor from parents being trapped in the same space as their children in the middle of sexual congress, going as far into The To Do List as having them lock eyes with their kids mid-orgasm or shaking the hand of the person currently fucking them. Dismissing The To Do List outright for blatantly adult comedians playing young or for 90s-nostalgic references to things like Hillary Clinton & jean skorts is an oddly reductive way of looking at a comedy that actively challenges the same gendered, double standard sex comedy tropes later subverted in Blockers. It’s even arguable that The To Do List is the more aggressive of the pair in that subversion, as its dedication to gross-out raunch is much more prolonged & pronounced. If nothing else, The To Do List was also prescient of the losing-your-virginity-on-top gag later repeated in the critical darling Lady Bird. That’s gotta be worth something, right?
Blockers is a great film that deserves to be celebrated for its femme subversions of a long-established comedic boys’ club that only gets sourer every passing decade. I don’t at all mean to detract from what Cannon accomplished there. I would just want to stress to anyone desperate to see more of that subversion out in the pop media landscape that The To Do List is well worth a critical reevaluation in the same context (along with the equally underrated The Bronze). If we could be gifted with one heartfelt, femme gross-out sex comedy a year like Blockers or The To Do List, the world would be a better, filthier place. We deserve more movies like them, but in the mean time we should give proper due to the ones we already have.
Although the recent coming-out melodrama Love, Simon had only a (very) minor impact at the box office, its significance as a safe, middle-of-the-road queer narrative within the larger mainstream filmmaking picture has been discussed at length in nearly all critical circles. An entire episode of the bonkers teen soap opera Riverdale was even dedicated to Love, Simon’s cultural impact on queer visibility, which seem outsized considering the sanitized, post-John Green mediocrity promised in its ads. The consensus argument seems to be that Love, Simon is important because of that mediocrity, that gay teens deserve their own bland popcorn fluff just as much as anyone else. It’s pointless to argue against that perspective, but for anyone who’s not especially interested in that kind of safe, sexless teen romance no matter what its orientation, I’d like to offer the high school sex comedy Blockers as potential counterprogramming. In Blockers, sex is exactly as fun, stupid, silly, gross, and awkward as it should be in a high school-set comedy. The film shifts away from the bro-friendly humor of the teen sex comedy’s American Pie & Porky’s past by approaching the subject from a femme, sex-positive perspective. It even has a remarkably deft coming-out story built into its DNA that matches the sentimentality promised by Love, Simon without the accompanying sexless schmaltz. I don’t mean to suggest that makes Blockers a better film by default or that Love, Simon doesn’t deserve the critical attention it’s being afforded. I’m just saying that if the ads for Love, Simon left you cold, Blockers might just be the trashy teen sex comedy antidote you’re looking for. It might even satisfy your craving for a modernized John Hughes emotional journey in the process.
Set over the course of a single night (prom night!), Blockers details the bungled execution of a “sex pact” between three teen friends who all plan to lose their virginity in tandem. Because they’re young women and not the typical Apatow-modeled dudes who usually helm these pictures, this plan was met with extreme resistance from their snooping parents. Leslie Mann is finally given to something to do for once as a stressed-out Alpha Mom who wants to protect her daughter form repeating her worst mistakes. John Cena, appearing in Pure Dad cargo shorts, is the typical overprotective father who’s terrified of his teen daughter’s sexuality despite his better judgment. Ike Barinholtz is the most nuanced of the three. He generally disagrees with the other parents’ sex-negative paranoia, but also wants to protect his own daughter, who he knows to be a closeted lesbian, from committing herself to a traumatizing heterosexual experience just to feel like she belongs. The heightened delusions & deranged coddling impulses that torment these parents are the butt of the film’s ultimate joke; their fear of young female sexuality is an eternally embarrassing punchline. Meanwhile, the three damsels they attempt to rescue (Kathryn Newton, Gideon Adlon, and MVP Geraldine Viswanathan, who steals every scene she’s afforded) are doing just fine navigating all the awkward, grotesque, humiliating, and absurdly silly pitfalls that accompany pangs of teenage horniness, as countless dudes in losing-your-virginity comedies have in the past. The blatant double standard in question is extensively & explicitly challenged in the film’s dialogue, but Blockers is rarely outright didactic in its sex-positive politics. Moralizing about the policing of femme teen sexuality is instead allowed to be a background flavor that enhances, but does not overpower the usual gross-out gags that steer the genre: butt-stuff, drug-trips, puke, unwelcome nudity – all the standard hallmarks of a post-John Waters mainstream comedy.
Like with most teen movies, the three girls’ personalities are visually established early on by their bedroom décor. The main girl’s bedroom is not as distinctly coded as her two besties’, but it does prominently feature a clue as to where the movie’s heart lies: a Sixteen Candles poster. Both Love, Simon and Blockers are chasing the John Hughes model of capturing the modern teen zeitgeist in a single picture and it’s lovely to see that they both feel the need to include prominent queer narratives in that mission (even if they happen to follow a coming-out misery pattern we’ve seen exhaustively repeated onscreen before). Blockers separates itself from Love, Simon in the open acknowledgment that sex & romance are both hilarious & disgusting, which is always going to be the more attractive route for me as an audience. I don’t think its own mold-breaking challenge to the gendered politics of the typical high school sex comedy are exactly revolutionary. if nothing else, The To Do List already delivered an excellent femme subversion of the trope to a tepid critical response in 2013 and 2014’s Wetlands has set the bar impossibly high for what a gross-out femme sex comedy can achieve. Blockers is a damn fun addition to that tide-change, though, one that’s surprisingly emotionally effective in its own continuation of a John Hughes tradition. Just like how critics are calling for a wave of normalized queer narratives in the Love, Simon vein, I’d love to live in a world where we’re afforded at least one of these gross-out femme sex comedies a year. Continuing to keep prominent queer characters as part of that tradition would also be ideal (which is admittedly something you don’t get in my pet favorites The Bronze or The To Do List), which is partly why Blockers is a shockingly well-considered precedent for how the teen sex comedy genre can remain both modernly relevant and true to its gross-out roots.
“I just had the worst thought. I’ve got to spend the rest of my life with myself.”
Is the world finally realizing that the 90s high school movie was one of the all-time heights of comedy cinema? The last gasp of the genuine Heathers & Clueless lineage might have been Mean Girls in 2004, but we’ve recently seen a few really great throwbacks to the era that repurpose 90s high school movie tropes for a new effect. Cheerleader reinterprets the genre as an abstract art piece. The To Do List transforms it into a raunchy, gender-flipped sex comedy. The DUFF lightly parodies it in a longform homage. The Edge of Seventeen, for its part, follows the basic rules of the 90s high school movie, except it matures the material slightly by portraying its teen girl protagonist as a deeply flawed antihero. Nadine (Hailee Seinfeld) is a mean, self-centered emotional wreck who talks trash a mile a minute as a means to cover up her own anxieties & vulnerabilities. In other words, she’s a realistic portrait of a teenager (or at least how I remember my asshole teenage self). The Edge of Seventeen is a worthy contribution to the high school comedy genre, not least of all because it adds a realistic layer of paradoxical self-loathing narcissism to its young protagonist that taps into a strikingly honest aspect of teen life that isn’t often represented onscreen. Or at least not often enough.
The movie opens with a grizzled history teacher (Woody Harrelson, reprising a less-drunk version of his role in The Hunger Games) shrugging off Nadine’s threat of suicide. She’s in so much pain; you can see it in her eyes as she rattles off a long list of grievances with the world and the details of the way she’d most like to die. Her teacher slowly, methodically deflates her moment of crisis by turning it into a quietly sweet, but deeply mean-spirited joke. This method works in its own weird way as it both slows down Nadine’s panic-mode thought processes, but also matches her own mean-spirited mode of verbally lashing out at people she cares about, but can’t control. Her reasons for being suicidally upset range from legitimate grief over a lost family member to petty anxiety over not being able to dictate the romantic pairings of her best friend, her family, her crush, or the boy who crushes on her. She harshly pushes away anyone who could potentially care about her, yet yearns for genuine interpersonal intimacy. The Edge of Seventeen is an eerily accurate portrait of teenage life that captures both the small details of lazing around watching TV, depending on others for transportation, and puking orange soda mix drinks into your parents’ toilet as well as the larger themes of godlike hubris clashing with soul-crushing self deprecation that makes teens so difficult to deal with, even when you are one. As self-centered as Nadine constantly seems to be, she often breaks down to ask friends questions like “How do you even like me? What’s wrong with you? I don’t even like me.” It’s that exact narcissistic self-conflict and focus on an anxious time where every thing means everything that makes this film so true to one of life’s most unpleasant stretches.
One of the best parts about The Edge of Seventeen is how it accomplishes all this while still feeling like a traditional high school comedy. This isn’t the soul-shattering trauma of The Diary of a Teenage Girl or the indie-minded, slang-loaded melodrama of Juno. In its own muted way, The Edge of Seventeen follows the will-they-won’t-they patterns of any & all high school romcoms and it’s tempting to call the film typical of its genre because of that narrative predictability. Everything outside of the basic plot structure is handled too smartly for me to be that reductive, though. Nadine’s own quest for self-acceptance and friendship is given far more prominence than her romantic machinations. Of all the people she can’t seem to get along with despite herself, she clashes hardest with her mother, yet the two are nearly identical personalities. The movie could’ve made a huge, emotionally cathartic deal out of that tension or out of Nadine’s oddly antagonistic relationship with her favorite teacher. Instead, it lets those relationships exist as they are and allows the audience to catch up with how they’re significant in its own time. It’s also an R-rated teen comedy with a female emotional bully protagonist who’s far less interested in winning people over than she is in protecting herself from yet another damaging blow to her heart & her ego. As much as The Edge of Seventeen feels like a throwback to a genre that saw its heyday two whole decades ago, it also exists as a shining exception of unflinching black comedy & truthful self-examination that doesn’t often touch the teen comedy genre outside an outlier like Election or Strangers With Candy. It’s a rare treat in that way, however bittersweet.
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..