Monday, 27 August 2012

Heathers (1988)

Did your high school have a know-it-all? A too-smart-for-his-own-good kid in a uniform of Converse sneakers, plaid shirts and sunglasses, with ambitions of facial hair? A kid who always arrived late for class, then sat in the back row peppering the teacher with cynical asides, smugly correcting the grammar mistakes in handouts and generally making it impossible to get any real work done? A kid who later spent his college years in a shitty garage band "without a genre" or as a half-baked political activist before abruptly selling out and going to law school? I know this isn't a standard high school cliche like The Jock or The Cheerleader, but am I sort of ringing some bells here? Well, Heathers (Michael Lehmann, 1988) is the cinematic equivalent of your standard high-school know-it-all. It's almost always right; it's almost never kind; and its caustic wit is sharp and clever, but too cruel to be really funny.

September from the "Croquet Babes in Blazers" calendar.
Veronica Sawyer (Winona Ryder) has bitten and scratched her way up Westerburg High's pecking order, only to find that being at the top of the food chain disagrees with her stomach. Her peers in the teenage aristocracy -- the totally vile Heather Chandler (Kim Walker) and slightly less monstrous Heathers Duke (Shannen Doherty) and McNamara (Lisanne Falk) -- entertain themselves by tormenting their classmates, a hobby their victims passively accept until transfer student J. D. (Christian Slater) comes to town. Before you can say "Swatch dogs and Diet Cokeheads", J. D.'s seduced Veronica into serving Heather Chandler a fatal antifreeze cocktail. Her death kickstarts a vogue for teenage suicide at Westerburg, and when Veronica tries to right matters, she's nearly offed by the nutso J. D. Our heroine finally manages to save the day seconds before J. D. blows up the school: Heathers' ending, in which Veronica lights a cigarette off the explosion that consumes J. D.'s body and wryly declares "there's a new sheriff in town", is among the most deeply satisfying I've seen, despite its being a studio-mandated rewrite.

Heathers falls prey to an assumption that's pretty pervasive in high school genre flicks: that all high school kids, from the 7th graders to the seniors, are equally barbaric to each other. I don't buy this. Maybe my senior high school years were sheltered, but no one was really that horrible to me. I endured the same insecurities I assume my peers did, but most of my highly tragic inner turmoil was self-inflicted; no one else really messed with me. That's why I'm always a little skeptical regarding movies about the wanton cruelty of 11th and 12th graders. By the time kids are talking about college, most have matured beyond torturing each other for the sheer joy of it. The kind of malicious cafeteria politics depicted in films like Heathers (or the more recent, and funnier, Mean Girls) as taking place between older kids seems more suited to 7th or 8th graders. In my experience, by the time they're old enough to drive, high schoolers more closely resemble the characters of Daria, Election or The Breakfast Club -- they endure tiffs and rivalries, but they don't dogmatically despise less "popular" classmates simply by virtue of their existence.

Heathers has a fantastic script, not a single line of which sounds like anything a real human being would ever say, some ravishingly bizarro costumes, and a bevy of drop-dead (hee hee) gorgeous actresses who do not resemble any 16-year-old who ever walked this planet. Best of all, its heart is in entirely the wrong place. This movie is not interested in exploring the deep, underlying causes of teenage anguish. It doesn't want to make you feel better. Instead, it's an extended snigger at the expense of the common enough adolescent misconception that unhappiness is somehow ennobling. Self-destruction is one of this society's last sacred cows, and Heathers' amoral inconclasm is occasionally obnoxious, but also endearing in spite of itself. Its heroines are from a different, darker valley than the Disney dolls who populate teen movies nowadays: they drink and have sex, and how complicit Veronica is in Heather Chandler's murder is admirably left ambiguous. All in all, I do recommend Heathers, although it can be more bewildering than enjoyable. I'll stand by any movie where a band called Big Fun releases the single "Teenage Suicide: Don't Do It!"

Suspenders: are they right for you?
SCENE STEALER: Shannen Doherty's Heather Duke gets the clearest narrative arc of all the Heathers: the second she gets her hands on the deceased Heather Chandler's trademark red scrunchie, Duke goes from the sweet, long-suffering underdog of the Heathers to the wicked queen of Westerburg High. Absolute power corrupts her absolutely, and Veronica's disbelief and horror at the change that has been wrought upon her "friend" are believable enough: Doherty's china-doll face and doe eyes belie the horrible transformation that has taken place. I haven't seen Shannen Doherty in anything else, but my understanding is that she got to be kind of a big deal later, which doesn't surprise me. She's the only actress playing a "Heather" who's able to imbue her character with a soul, twisted though it may be. Hooray for Shannen Doherty! P. S., I know this is not a big deal and does not have the slightest bearing on her talent as an actress at all, but have you noticed the way one of her eyes is higher up than the other one?


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