For our generation, the high school movie is epitomised by Mean Girls (2004). The classic teen movie fare sent up by barbed, bitchy dialogue, it’s beloved and endlessly quoted – “you go, Glenn Coco!” – but never really deviates from the standard story arc and style. Even the epithet ‘teen movie’ is enough to make a lot of people switch off, finding it hard to believe that this genre might actually have anything of substance to say. But if you’re not usually a fan, don’t let Mean Girls and its ilk put you off – Heathers (1988), one of my favourite films, is its bigger & better older sister.
This satirical black comedy takes every facet of the teen movie and intensifies it. It’s what a high school movie could be, capturing the intensity of adolescence from the inside and exploring some of the darkest sides of human nature. If you need more persuading, it’s also absolutely hilarious (and incredibly 80s, which is always fun).
A youthful Winona Ryder (back in the days when she was only stealing scenes, as one Rotten Tomatoes commentator quipped) plays Veronica, a disaffected girl simultaneously drawn to and repulsed by the Heathers, the clique of the three most popular girls in school. This is an extremely stylised film, with a light-drenched hallucinogenic soft-focus aesthetic, dream-like soundtrack and dialogue sometimes reminiscent of Juno (2007) in its snappy exchanges, although much funnier, dirtier and more vicious by turns. Heathers deals with standard teen movie issues such as popularity, bullying and sex, whilst spiralling quickly out of control until, as Veronica says ‘My teen angst bullshit has a body count’. Most of the movie’s dark side is driven by the anarchic destructive force of JD, Veronica’s sociopath love interest, played by an angular Christian Slater. The film at first appears to offer the sense of escape through a romantic relationship that runs through many teen films, but it soon becomes clear that although Veronica is attracted by his nihilistic attitude and complete lack of fear, there are no limits to what he’s capable of.
As Veronica’s mother says “When teenagers complain that they want to be treated like human beings, it’s usually because they are being treated like human beings”. Heathers treats teenagers like human beings – it dignifies the darker side of the teen experience, encapsulating the dizzying intensity of emotions, but it goes further in making manifest the twisted interiority of the minds of tormented teenagers, it enacts the darkest parts of ourselves that we’re forced to confront – all while being bitingly hilarious. Ultimately, the film discredits the nihilistic, ‘fuck everything’ attitude of the teenage rebel, but not before taking us along on their destructive downward spiral. It’s also got some pertinent life lessons we can all take on board. Next time someone’s really driving you insane remember, as Veronica says, “It’s one thing to want someone out of your life, but it’s another thing to serve them a wake-up cup full of liquid drainer”.
Watch Heathers – it’s so “very”.