August 21, 2011


In Heathers (1989), Winona Ryder plays Veronica, a member of the most popular, and powerful, clique in her suburban Ohio high school. The other three girls are all named Heather, and one of them in particular, Heather Chandler (played by Kim Walker), rules the social circles of the school with an iron fist. She's an elevated stereotype, a bitchy promzilla with really bad taste in clothes. (I'm not sure how the girls' wardrobes looked good even at the time this movie was made. Oh, the 80s.) Veronica feels torn--she wanted to be popular, but now she's paying the price as a social prisoner, bound by the rules of the Heathers and all their heathering ways. The she meets J.D. (Christian Slater), the new kid in town, who's a cocky rebel with a violent streak. The film is about Veronica's descent into a hellish world of violence and murder--murder made to look like suicide--as she tries to rearrange the social hierarchy of high school.

Heathers wasn't a box office hit, but it has acquired a cult following, probably because of its bizarre story. It explores death and violence and the cruelty of high school in a way I've never seen in the movies, except maybe in Brian De Palma's Carrie (which will be Part Two of this series). The thing that makes Heathers rather distasteful--its unapologetic look at teenagers and violence--is what makes it more truthful than the myriad of teen comedies that portray high school life with a safety line. In most movies in the genre, nothing's ever really as serious as life or death--everything stays on a sitcom level where you know things will be okay in the end. In Heathers, the problem is that you want things to stay the same, but they refuse to. The characters themselves are time bombs, ticking away at a feverish pace.

With the "suicide" of the first Heather, the school becomes a media circus, and the school administration unintentionally elevates the topic of teen suicide to a sort of cult status. It's suddenly "hip" to kill yourself, or something like that. If you think Heathers is trying to glorify all this, you're mistaken. It's showing the stupidity of people who try to gloss over it, who try to patronize the young by acting as though they don't have the power or the will to take their own lives.

Winona Ryder gives a solid lead performance. She plays Veronica as smart, affected, a girl who's aware of her merciless friends and her unhappy existence, but who lacks the nerve to stand up for herself. She finds relief in J.D., who's willing to go there--to express the violence she's been bottling up inside herself for so long. He's letting her do more than live vicariously through him. He's helping her to unearth feelings and desires in herself the existence of which she'd rather deny. And when she looks and sees what she's capable of, she panics.

Heathers is like Dante's Inferno Inferno mixed with Bonnie and Clyde and set in the 1980s. As a black comedy, it's never as funny as you'd like it to be. As a hyper-real portrait of high school life, it captures marvelously the social hierarchies and the shame and deception that occurs between people, and these hierarchies do not start, or end, with adolescence, as the movie is so apt to point out.

It was the first feature directing effort by Michael Lehmann, one which garnered him much acclaim. He's done very little work of note since. And even Heathers, which is not great but has moments of greatness, is itself too muddled and nasty to be fun. Maybe that's my fault for wanting the sitcom level offered by a Sixteen Candles or an Easy A. I think those movies capture the truth of high school to a degree. Heathers takes that truth and turns it inward--you are the vicious social tyrant you despise.

With Shannen Doherty and Lisanne Falk as the two other Heathers, and Penelope Milford, Glenn Shadix, Lance Fenton, and Patrick Layorteaux.

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