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Digesting the lowest rung of pop culture so you don't have to!
In the late 1980s, Daniel Waters, writer of such eventual bad films as Hudson Hawk and Batman Returns, attempted to create the most accurate movie portrayal of teenagers ever committed to film. His attempt was a movie called Heathers, and despite box office mediocrity and gobs of controversy, the attempt largely succeeds. Though drenched in the pure, awesome power of the 1980s, Heathers is a film that still holds up entirely. Thanks to its honest portrayal of teenagers (including Winona Ryder’s mature and intelligent protagonist, Veronica — the prototype for smart high schoolers like Veronica Mars and Lindsay Lohan’s Cady in Mean Girls, as well as Christian Slater’s Jason “J.D.” Dean — outrageous Jack Nicholson impersonation and all) along with the movie’s prescient, controversial take on school violence, Heathers is a damn fine film.
The film takes place in small town Ohio in the late 1980s. Veronica Sawyer (Ryder) is an intelligent, ambitious teenager trapped in the popular clique, which she has recently ascended to be a part of. Despite enjoying the popularity and power her group of friends commands, Veronica wants more out of her high school life, feeling empty and at the whims of the head popular girl, one of the titular Heathers. She dreams of a world where she is free of the clique, and after an altercation at a party, that opportunity presents itself. Unfortunately, her opportunity to escape involves mass murder, teenage suicide, and a spiraling-out-of-control plot to blow up her high school. Can Veronica redeem herself and save the school? Well, the movie is available on Netflix, so go watch it and find out.
Heathers is great for many reasons, but Christian Slater’s J.D. takes the cake as my absolute favorite part of the movie. His mantra is “The extreme seems to always make an impression” and he lives up to that from his very first scene, wherein he pulls a gun on two high school jock assholes, firing blanks at their crotches and scaring the piss out of them (this kind of behavior in 2012 would no doubt lead to expulsion). It is J.D. who pushes Veronica towards the macabre, as he purposely lets her poison her best friend. J.D. strives for blackmail, murder, destruction — all the unaccountable chaotic variables in life are his goal. Slater plays the role with aplomb, echoing his hero Jack Nicholson in an uncanny, near over-the-top impersonation. The young, handsome Slater also evokes images of James Dean (his name is freakin’ J.D. for example) and Marlon Brando in the rebellious teen films of the 1950s.
Ryder’s Veronica Sawyer is one of the all-time great teenage protagonists. As noted earlier, there have been just so many characters influenced by her performance. Ryder plays Veronica with an intelligence beyond her age. Ryder has starred in her fair share of critically acclaimed roles, but she has never been better than she is in Heathers. Shannon Doherty plays a supporting-to-main role as one of the titular Heathers, whom Ryder will have an epic power struggle with over the populace of the school. The scenes between the two are fantastic, well-acted, and contain near iconic dialogue.
It’s pretty amazing just how modern Heathers is, and in many more ways than just the Columbine-connection. It would be pretty hard to get away with the bomb-the-school subplot nowadays. Heathers was indeed controversial even for its time. There are elements of black comedy throughout, such as one high school girl using Holy water to freshen her hair. In one extremely prescient scene, the town mourns over the would-be suicides of two athletes purported to be gay (though they’re actually not gay). In our “It Gets Better” modern day society, these deaths would no doubt be all over the media, with social networks atwitter (no pun intended) with positive messages for potential gay and lesbian teens.
The film is not without its flaws. I often complain about films being too long, and Heathers is no exception. Once J.D. and Veronica split ways, some of the magic of the film deflates a bit. Once the bomb-plot is in full effect, the film is almost exhausting. Indeed, the audience feels the way Ryder’s character looks at the end. Some characters, such as Veronica’s best friend Betty (purposely named so, I swear), are fairly underwritten and not given much to do. Heathers is director Michael Lehmann’s first feature film, and this shows in many ways (though for a first effort it isn’t bad at all).
Many films would try to emulate Heathers in the years after its release. Films still try to emulate its style even now, some twenty-three years after its release. Ironically, the movie was a box office bomb upon release. The cult audience grew once it was released on videotape (it was also one of the first DVDs I ever bought). Pretty much nobody in Heathers was any better in anything else than they were here. Screenwriter Daniel Waters, along with Ryder and Slater, greatly succeeded in making Heathers one of the most genuine, honest portrayals of high school ever put to film.