Thursday, 27 June 2019

Classic Movie Review: Heathers (1989)

Heathers (1989)
Directed by: Michael Lehmann.
Written by: Daniel Waters.
Starring: Winona Ryder (Veronica), Christian Slater (J.D.), Shannen Doherty (Heather (Duke)), Lisanne Falk (Heather (McNamara)), Kim Walker (Heather (Chandler)), Penelope Milford (Pauline Milford), Glenn Shadix (Father Ripper), Lance Fenton (Kurt Kelly), Patrik Labyorteaux (Ram), Jeremy Applegate (Peter Dawson), Jon Shear (Rodney), Carrie Lynn (Martha Dunnstock), Phil Lewlis (Dennis), Renee Estevez (Betty Finn).
 
The 1980s were the Golden Age of teen movies – propelled mainly by John Hughes production like The Breakfast Club, Sixteen Candles, Pretty in Pink, etc. Yet, it was in the year’s final year that two of the very best films in the genre came out – and took completely different tactics in dealing with it. Cameron Crowe’s Say Anything took high school romance seriously – and allowed its teenage characters to have full, well rounded lives outside of the high school walls. And then there was Heathers – whose goal really was to quite literally blow up the teen comedy. This is an incredibly dark comedy, with jokes about murder, suicide, homosexuality and many other taboo subjects. Unlike what some people in 2019 like to assume, people at the time the film came out had reservations about the film, and its depictions of these issues. You have to look no further than Roger Ebert’s review – which question its tone and approach in taking on such heavy issues in such a light way. True, Columbine was still a decade in the future when Heathers came out – and the film probably wouldn’t have been made in a post-Columbine world (at least not by a major studio). But Heathers goal was always to shock its audience. It worked in 1989, and it still works in 2019.
 
The film stars, in one of her best early film roles, Winona Ryder as Veronica – the smartest girl in school, who has found a way to survive high school. What she has essentially done is befriend the Heathers – three girls, all named Heather, who run the school – much like the Mean Girls in Tina Fey’s film 15 years later, would. She does their dirty work – mocking others, enforcing strict social control, etc. but doesn’t feel good about it. Then she meets new kid J.D. (Christian Slater) – who initials are clearly designed to call to mind James Dean. He wears a leather jacket, rides a motorcycle (with no helmet!) and hates everything about high school. His dad has moved him around from one school to the next, and his adopted cool guy routine acts as his armor – and it disguises his underlying psychopathology. Because that is what J.D. is – but he’s a charming one, and in Veronica he finds what he thinks may be his soul mate. Bonnie to his Clyde as it were. The first death is of one of the Heathers – and is something that Veronica is able to convince herself is an accident, although it wasn’t accidental on J.D.’s part. Still, they are able to convincingly play it off like a suicide, sparking concern in the clueless adults around. There are further murders, disguised as suicides. There is a catchy song that the school listens to “Teenage Suicide (Don’t Do It”). The film spirals further and further down into its darkly comic world.
 
The film was directed by Michael Lehmann, from a screenplay by Daniel Waters. The writing is better than the direction – its dark and comic and cynical in the extreme, and delivered wonderfully by the two leads – Ryder in particular is great here, although it is easy to see why Slater was compared to Jack Nicholson at the time – even if much like the Stallone to Brando comparisons made after Rocky, we know where it all ends up. Waters screenplay is wise in the way it sees teenagers as basically all psychopaths – it’s tempting to assume that it’s just a few bad apples at the top that make high school hell, but in reality, if those people didn’t exist, someone else would rise up and do the same thing. In this world, J.D.’s hatred in it all – and his Columbine-like plan – even make a twisted sort of sense. If the whole system is screwed up, then to correct it, you have to burn the whole thing down.
 
Lehmann’s chief contribution in his direction is to basically shoot the whole thing like a typical teenage comedy. There is nothing edgy in his direction – this isn’t a forerunner to the dark, indie film depictions of teenagers we would see through the 1990s in films like Kids. No, Lehmann is treating this all as if he’s directing a John Hughes movie – allowing the darkness of the screenplay and performances do the work in disturbing the audience for him. The dissonance between how the movie is directed and how its written works in its favor – it almost makes it more disturbing.
 
Heathers has become, and remains, a cult classic. In recent years, it’s inspired a musical and a TV show – both of them have been controversial, and this film remains so. It will still shock and disturb those who see it. But rather than write lengthy take downs of the film, lecturing older generations about things you think they do not know (but are really fully aware of), perhaps you should consider that disturbing and shocking you is precisely the point. It just does it with a smile on its face.

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