Monday 2 June 2014

Movie Review: Heathers (1988)

A dark high school revenge comedy, Heathers takes peer pressure to dangerous corners where violent fantasies become real and the consequences are deadly, all with a dose of acrid humour.

Heather Chandler (Kim Walker), Heather Duke (Shannon Doherty), and Heather McNamara (Lisanne Falk) form the most uppity clique of girls at Westerburg High School in Sherwood, Ohio. Chandler is the conceited and dominant leader, Duke the bulimic and bookish brunette, and McNamara the tentative cheerleader. Veronica Sawyer (Winona Ryder) is trying to join the Heathers, but often finds herself the target of their insults instead. J.D. Dean (Christian Slater) is the new kid in school, and is both too cool and too quick to resort to the threat of violence.

Veronica and J.D. start a romance, but when Veronica runs out of patience with the Heathers and out of frustration wishes that Heather Chandler was dead, J.D. is happy to oblige. Chandler's death is disguised as a suicide, and ironically she becomes even more popular after her death. Soon Veronica finds herself in a maelstrom of multiplying murders and pseudo suicides, as J.D. runs amok, the school is thrown into turmoil, and another Heather simply moves up the hierarchy to once again traumatize the uncool kids.

Heathers turns the awkwardness of high school into a tragic comedy. Peer pressure, abject meanness, the bullies and the bullied, the need to fit in, outcasts in the corners, jocks and hunks all come to life in a bizarre pantomime. But rather than chase after the usual themes of celebrating individuality through sarcasm and broad humour, the Daniel Waters script veers off into uncharted territory. Here the reveries born from typical grievances become all too real, people die, murder and suicide grip the school community. Everything seems to change, and yet nothing really does change.

Released eleven years before the Columbine High School shootings changed the discourse about violence at schools, Heathers is free to explore violence and its consequences through the warped lens of sarcasm. Metaphorically, J.D. represents Veronica's dark side taking control and acting on her most evil impulses, and Heathers is ultimately about the resilience of the well established high school culture. No matter how disruptive J.D.'s actions are, he is no match for the prevailing order. The school's ecosystem adjusts and rearranges itself, the popular kids become more popular, the losers remain losers, and life continues. The violence creates a ripple effect but ultimately consumes itself, leaving a trail of victims but achieving little.

Working with a miniscule budget of $2 million, Michael Lehmann keeps the production simple, with a focus on the characters and Waters' sharp words. Winona Ryder is perfectly cast as Veronica, her brooding yet mischievous persona acting as both instigator and observer of the pandemonium. Christian Slater gives J.D. an ice cold stance, an emotionless killer disconnected from the reality of his actions. The actresses portraying the Heathers do a fine job of creating three unique profiles united in their desire to demean everyone else.

Heathers is challenging, charming and unsettling. Narcissistic girls can be hell to deal with, but unleashing violence in response just makes hell that much hotter.

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