Sunday, May 26, 2013

Review: Heathers (1988)

Heathers (1988)


Watching Heathers twenty-five years after it came out is an exercise in asking oneself "now how is the next scene going to be cringeworthy with the benefit of hindsight?" Let's see. One of the first big gags involves Christian Slater's trenchcoat-clad, antisocial teen outcast Jason "J.D." Dean bringing a gun to school and firing two blanks at a pair of bullies; everything about the character, especially as the film goes on, makes him feel like a proto-Eric Harris. One of the titular mean girls, Heather Chandler, asks one of her friends if she had a brain tumor for breakfast, and is later killed; the actress who played her, Kim Walker, died of brain cancer at the age of 32. Another character, Peter, prays that he will never commit suicide; his actor, Jeremy Applegate, killed himself at the age of 34. The entire second half of the film revolves around a spate of teen "suicides" and the school's befuddled reactions to them, and yes, reference is made to homophobic bullying and closeted homosexuality. Nowadays, this is one of the last movies that one might expect to throw into the DVD player in the hope of having a good time.

Yet just as certain events have made the black comedy here that much blacker, they have also made the story that much deeper and more resonant. Even with the '80s fashion and the jokes about bottled water being effeminate, this film is arguably more relevant now than it's ever been. What was once meant to be taken as absurd and comical has now become tragic reality, seen in countless high schools that are each one too many. The film has quite a bit to say about high school popularity contests and how we treat teen suicide. And believe it or not, it is still quite funny after all of that, handling its subject matter not unlike how Blazing Saddles skewered race relations, edging razor-close to the line of good taste but never jumping across it and becoming more insulting than comedic.

What makes this film hold up so well is its commentary on so many different aspects of teenage life. J.D., for instance, is a "bad boy" in the mold of Bender from The Breakfast Club, raised by an apathetic, blue-collar father and frequently getting into trouble. Unlike Bender, though, J.D.'s violent behavior and rants against society are made out here to be characteristic of a psychopath, with his big introductory moment being the aforementioned scene where he shoots blanks at two bullies. He's the ultimate rebel, a young man who, underneath his charming attitude, wishes to destroy everything around him. Slater's performance greatly helps to sell this dichotomy of the guy; I've seen his acting here compared many times to Jack Nicholson, and watching the "here's Johnny!" scene from The Shining, I see where it comes from. J.D.'s charming, but he's also a madman. In this age where "troubled, but cute" guys like Edward Cullen are glamorized, it's nice to see a film that recognizes what this means in real life more often than not -- an abusive, monstrous individual.

Then there's the bite that the film is most famous for. In this day and age where teen suicide and bullying are seen as a national crisis, the flippant manner in which the clueless adults in this film treat teen suicide is easily one of the most shocking things about it. And then you hear news stories -- from today, mind you -- about anti-bullying efforts being called "creeping homosexual recruitment", and you realize that this film is just as relevant today as it was in 1988. From the father of one of the jocks being forced to confront the idea that his "golden boy" son had killed himself due to homophobic bullying, to the school's opinion of Heather Chandler doing a complete 180 after she dies, to a corny novelty song called "Teenage Suicide (Don't Do It)" getting overplayed on the radio, Heathers has volumes to say about the petty fighting that goes on in high schools and how our media dehumanizes its victims by ignoring their actual lives, turning them into martyrs and giving them a posthumous 15 minutes of fame -- and in this age when both celebrity culture and the media's fascination with teen suicide are stronger than ever, who knows how many people will imitate you?

All of this wouldn't have mattered if the rest of the film didn't hold up. A film can have a nice message, but poor production can easily make it a slog to watch and cause viewers to ignore it. Fortunately, not only does this film's message resonate louder than ever, but the actual jokes still hold up remarkably well in spite of it. Yes, there are a few gags that will have you saying "oh hell no" rather than laughing, but the film rarely makes light of its subject matter, treating it with the respect it deserves and instead laughing at the absurd reactions everybody has to it. We get a slew of insanely quotable lines ("I love my dead gay son!" "My teen angst bullshit now has a body count.") that rival the likes of Mean Girls, as well as faculty meetings where everyone's trying to find a way to cash in on Heather Chandler's death, and more that I won't give away. The cast here helps to sell both the jokes and their characters, with Winona Ryder as the "popular" girl who doesn't belong, Shannen Doherty transforming from a follower to a queen bee in her own right, and the aforementioned Christian Slater pulling off both slick and crazy. As wrong as it may seem, you will laugh at this movie about teen bullying and suicide, and you won't hate yourself for it.

Score: 5 out of 5

Not only is this still a very funny movie, making touchy subject matter hilarious without being offensive, but its message is more relevant than ever. This is one of the all-time great teen movies, and a must-watch no matter how old you are.

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