Feb. 13, 2013 - Issue #904: The Sugar Trade
Heathering the stormIt's hard to imagine the world that Heathers (1988) could have emerged out of: ostensibly a dark high school comedy, it's both ahead of its time and completely grounded in its '80s setting. Plenty of now-non-PC jokes slip into its runtime, mixed in around a playful, darkly surreal take on young love and the volatile world of high school. It's like David Lynch took a crack at directing Mean Girls: a bizarre comedy that somehow manages to be both punchy and totally by the book.
Veronica (Winona Ryder, perfectly dry here) finds herself trapped, unhappily a part of the most popular clique in school; its other three members, all named Heather, practise uninhibited cruelty in the lunchroom and try to hook up at college parties. (They also play croquette together.) Rebellious outsider JD (Christian Slater) catches Veronica's eye when he, um, pulls a gun on some bullies in the cafeteria, and then shows up at her house. A relationship between the two blossoms, and once the Heathers seem poised to turn on Veronica, he convinces her to get some pre-emptive revenge. She thinks they're only going to make the lead Heather puke (which is apparently a really big deal in '80s high school); instead he slips her some drain-o and she croaks. Which is also a pretty big deal in '80s high school, but not quite as big as you might think, at least not according to Heathers. Part of the movie's uniqueness is what you might think the biggest concerns would be—namely, that our protagonists just killed someone—but instead that sits on the backburner while Veronica and JD's love story arcs along. To cover their tracks, Veronica forges a suicide note, and the body pile only escalates from there, until a a gym full of student's is about to get blown up while Veronica realizes that this all might be a bit much.
In its script, Heathers is most certainly a product of the '80s, content to play fast and lose with homophobic slurs, teen suicide and guns in schools. Some of this would just never get through today. But if you can handle some of the more dated derogatory world views, there's an incredibly mischievous, devil-may-care sense of comedy at play, including perhaps the best delivery of a joke about teen sexuality ever filmed (it pivots on a bottle of mineral water that's brilliantly set up and delivered). It takes guts for director Michael Lehmann (whose career in feature films spiraled into more generic screen filler like The Truth About Cats & Dots and Airheads) and writer Daniel Waters (who co-wrote Batman Returns) to ignore more standard concerns like logic—outside of one particularly close call with the cops, nobody really worries about the real-world ramifications for increasingly killing off the jerks in school—and instead paint the film as a surreal, murderous portrait of young love.
So while it's full of teens offing teens and plenty of now-un-PC themes, it's also an often genuinely hilarious spin on the high school romance story, which only got more rote and boring from here on in. V
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