Tag Archives: Mean Girls

Barely Lethal

Despite a whirlwind charm offensive from Hailee Steinfeld and some decent moments, Barely Lethal is a wasted opportunity.

by Callum Petch (Twitter: @CallumPetch)

barely lethal 1Pro-Tip for all aspiring teenage/high school comedies: NEVER invoke the names of Mean Girls, The Breakfast Club, 10 Things I Hate About You, et al during the course of your film.  Just don’t.  Ever.  Do not bring them up, either as homages or having characters mention them by name for whatever reason, as all it does is make you look worse off by comparison and leaving the viewer, myself in this case, wondering why they’re not just watching those frequently-much-better films.  The DVD cover of Mean Girls is prominently displayed at one early point in Barely Lethal and I strongly considered turning off the latter to watch the former again, even though I already re-watched Mean Girls exactly one month ago!

That’s actually being rather unnecessarily harsh on Barely Lethal, which isn’t as bad as its godawful title and trailer suggests it will be.  It’s just the kind of film that can’t stop making really obvious, really amateur, and really easy-to-avoid mistakes no matter how hard it tries.  And it keeps making them over and over and over, like a parent who still cannot operate a DVR despite having had the same one for 8 goddamn years.

So, for those not aware, Barely Lethal follows Megan (Hailee Steinfeld) who, orphaned at a young age, has spent her life being raised by a secretive branch of the US government that turns little girls into stone-cold killer assassins, headed by Hardman (Samuel L. Jackson).  She’s top of her class and the first of them to be activated, much to the irritation of her rival Heather (an utterly wasted Sophie Turner), but disagrees with Hardman’s “no attachments” policy and, whilst on various assignments, finds herself drawn to and desiring a normal teenage life.  When a mission to capture evil arms dealer Victoria Knox (Jessica Alba) goes wrong, Megan takes the opportunity to fake her death, relocate to a quiet American town, and attend high school, posing as a foreign exchange student for a nice family.

From there, things proceed exactly as you’re expecting them to, which is the first big shame.  The spy/assassin elements never quite gel with the high school elements, you see, with the former just kinda walking in and out of the film whenever it pleases, leaving the majority of the film basically being another “fish-out-of-water high school” movie but with an unnecessarily complex backstory to that “fish-out-of-water” part.  The tone is also wildly unsatisfying, not committing enough to the dark comedy and more unsavoury implications of the spy/assassin part, but also not committing enough to the high school tone to be sincere and genuine, occupying a middle-ground that leaves everything feeling weak: the spy stuff too toothless, the high school stuff too underdeveloped.

Incidentally, I could tell that this was written by a man even if I hadn’t seen the titles and done my research, such is the utter disdain the film shows for high school and especially for teenage girls.  Even the most utterly blistering takedowns of high school culture, like the aforementioned Mean Girls, have some semblance of caring for its targets, usually out of a desire to want the place and people to be better and much less sh*tty.  Barely Lethal really doesn’t, and so every last cliché in the high school movie book – bitchy girls, arsehole teenagers who are cruel to everybody for no real reason, lecherous and/or painfully uncool teachers, hunky yet vapid and self-centred boy (Toby Sebastian) who our lead is inexplicably all over instead of their equally as attractive yet slightly dorky best friend (Thomas Mann) who acts like a petulant child when she doesn’t crush back on him – gets trotted out and abused with no substance or wit or subversive intent.  It’s basically Baby’s First High School with extra bitter vitriol.

Or, to put it another way, this is a real exchange in this movie that caused me to genuinely and involuntarily groan out loud.

“There is an army of highly trained murderous psychopaths out to get me!”

“Hey, you survived high school.”

It’s a really lazy and underdeveloped movie, basically.  How lazy?  It has a montage set to “Bad Reputation” just like EVERY SINGLE PIECE OF HIGH SCHOOL-SET MEDIA IN HUMAN EXISTENCE.  Nothing feels natural, nothing feels paced, it just blazes through everything at 200MPH.  The point when Hardman inevitably tracked down Megan should be where the last third kicks off but I had a sneaking suspicion that the film wasn’t even halfway done, a suspicion that was promptly confirmed when I checked my watch and saw that we were only 40 minutes in.  The pre-high school stuff encompasses the film’s opening 10 minutes.  10.  Out of 105.  With the rest of those minutes instead being dedicated to trotting out every cliché in short order.  Surprising nobody, this means that the cast aren’t so much characters as one-note archetypes/stereotypes that their actors and actresses are supposed to fill in through sheer force of personality.

To her credit, this is something that Hailee Steinfeld manages to pull off.  Megan’s character, on paper, very much reads as a walking “Chloë Grace Moretz said ‘no’”, which is how it could have turned out in lesser hands.  Yet Steinfeld makes it her own in a number of ways.  She carries herself and convinces near-totally as somebody raised to become something they don’t really want to be, and who just wants to be normal; somebody who is genuinely out-of-their-comfort-zone at high school.  She’s also convincing at kicking ass when required, but not to the extent where I sit and wonder why she’s upset over the evil high school clichés instead of tearing through them like a hot knife through butter.  Then there’s her natural goofy charm, which is just so easily endearing and ultimately makes it hard not to like and enjoy time with Megan.  Between this and Pitch Perfect 2, which utilised said goofy charm way better but hey ho, Steinfeld very much seems to be in the part of her career where she’s a one-woman charm offensive, which is something I am not at all complaining about.

Unfortunately, her co-stars’ attempts to do the same are hampered by the simple fact that they don’t get enough screen-time to do so.  Sophie Turner is asked to do absolutely nothing besides be the film’s alpha bitch, not helped by the fact that she just walks in and out of the film at random points, giving no weight to her inevitable final showdown with Megan.  Jessica Alba seems to be trying to turn Knox into a witty and snarky yet legitimately dangerous villain but she gets maybe 10 minutes at best and her entire existence is just for perfunctory finale fireworks, whilst Samuel L. Jackson just kinda Samuel L. Jacksons for a bit, now seemingly at the part of his career where he will appear in quite literally anything that’s willing to provide him with money.  OK, more so than usual.

As for the action sequences…  Well, you know how Spy just proved than an action-comedy can and, in fact, should be just as proficient at the action sequences as the comedy sequences?  Turns out that Kyle Newman, who also directed 2009’s should-have-been-better Fanboys, is not Paul Feig.  The film’s low-budget radiates from how incredibly small scale the very few action sequences are, and all of them are shot abysmally and edited haphazardly.  The stand-out awful action sequence though is undoubtedly Megan and Heather’s big throw-down which, despite needing to be this big payoff, is near-incomprehensible due to excessively gratuitous camera shaking and unnecessarily tight framing.  Rule #1 of fight scenes in movies: the viewer needs to be able to see what’s going on!

And it’s little amateur mistakes like that which sink Barely Lethal.  I wanted to like this movie, and I do like certain parts of it – Hailee Steinfeld is a bona-fide charmer, there are the occasional funny lines, and the eventual bond that Megan makes with her ‘foster sister’ Liz (Dove Cameron) is kinda sweet and I’m a sucker for that sort of thing – but it’s one of those films that seems to believe that openly acknowledging its awareness of high school movie clichés gives it Carte blance to indulge in them anyway.  It wastes its premise on excessively trod ground and, unlike The DUFF, it’s too lazy (and rather vindictive) to come up with good enough material to make up for that fact.

Hailee Steinfeld is clearly destined to become A Star, regardless of whether it’s Serious Actor Steinfeld from works like True Grit or Charming Movie Star Steinfeld from this and Pitch Perfect 2, and she deserves films that are willing to work as hard and be as good as she is.  Barely Lethal is just not that film, and pure charisma alone can’t prop up a boring, disappointing, lazy waste of a movie.

Callum Petch is ready to do the Bus Stop.  Follow him on the Twitters (@CallumPetch)!

Advertisements

The DUFF

The DUFF is exactly what you’re expecting, but it also has charm, wit, and a killer lead performance from Mae Whitman.

by Callum Petch (Twitter: @CallumPetch)

the duffThe DUFF follows Bianca (Mae Whitman), a high school senior who has two hot popular best friends (Bianca A. Santos and Skyler Samuels) and wants to fit in but who’s very much an outcast due to her alternately snarky and awkward attitude, love of cult horror cinema, and not being a complete hottie that lecherous boys can drool over.  One night at a party, perpetual frenemy and next door neighbour Wes (Robbie Amell) informs Bianca that she is The DUFF (Designated Ugly Fat Friend) of her friends which crushes Bianca and the resultant paranoia leads to her breaking up with her friends.  Enlisting Wes’ help, as he’s the only one who told her about it, she sets about trying to un-DUFF herself and maybe even ask out hunky dreamboat guitar player Toby Tucker (Nick Eversman).

…so how many spots on your “Teen Comedy Bingo Card” are currently filled in?  I think I’ve got a full house on mine, just need a bitchy popular girl who makes it her life’s mission to bring misery to everyone and especially our protagonist (Bella Thorne) and a soundtrack of hip pop music… oh!  Oh, I have bingo!  I have bingo!  Flippancy aside, The DUFF really is exactly the movie you’re expecting it to be from the premise, trailer, poster, name, hell, even an out-of-context screenshot.  Will Bianca realise that labels are utterly meaningless unless you prescribe meaning to them?  Will she realise that everyone is a DUFF to someone?  Will Wes and Bianca seem to bond real close-like during their escapades?  Will she make peace with her friends?  Will she eventually “own” being the DUFF at the Homecoming dance?  If you have ever seen a teen comedy before, you already know every single one of these answers.

That said, I don’t mean this as a dismissive insult towards The DUFF.  Originality may be a valued commodity in filmmaking for us critics, in all honesty this film’s lack of it is why I’m not about to bust out the five-star rave review quotes, but it’s not the be-all-end-all of a film’s qualities.  For example, I could predict every last beat of The DUFF almost down to the second as I was watching it – including the moment where the slightly self-absorbed mother (Allison Janney who makes the most of what she’s got) would finally offer up some real advice for Bianca – but I still enjoyed the heck out of this movie.  Seriously, I’m sat here typing up this review with a tangible bound in my being, the kind that I can only get from seeing a particularly good movie on a nice day.

So why does The DUFF work?  Well, there are three particular reasons.  The first is that it’s really charming.  Visually, director Ari Sandel enjoys deploying social media aesthetics in order to help convey information and such – the opening of the film introduces each of our main cast of characters with little hashtag-accompanied montages to get us up to speed on them, and is incidentally the sole time in the history of mankind where I have and will laugh at the word “amazeballs” – which undoubtedly is going to date the crap out of this film in a few years, but does give it a nice distinct feel of its own instead of just trying to be Mean Girls 2.0 or whatever.

That charm also manifests itself in the script, too.  The characters do mostly fulfil the expected archetypes, but they’re still incredibly well-drawn and likeable.  The DUFF very smartly casts Bianca’s friends, Jess and Casey, as her real genuine friends with Bianca’s breaking up with them coming purely from her paranoia instead of anything they did.  After all, pretty much everybody wants some kind of companionship and the concept of The DUFF – the approachable one who makes their other friends look hotter by comparison, not necessarily fat or ugly – combined with the social pressure cooker that is high school, is just the kind of thing that can cause somebody to misguidedly eject those closest to them from their lives out of paranoia.  A lesser film would have made Jess and Casey exactly what Bianca fears them to be, but The DUFF portrays them as genuine friends and that sort of sincerity is manifested in most every character.  Hence: charm.

(Incidentally, and I feel I need to mention this before we go further: The DUFF does not condone the idea of The DUFF or that Bianca herself is in any way super ugly or fat.  At least to me, anyway.  The film very much paints her struggle with DUFF as her own self-esteem issues and fear of not being accepted rather than her becoming more socially acceptable and such.  It also never asks you to see her as ugly or in any way undesirable, helped by it making most of the guys who subscribe to that line of thinking as lecherous jackasses whose behaviour is Not OK.  That’s my take, at least – others may feel differently and may even be correct since I’m probably the last person who should speak authoritatively on this.)

The script also provides reason number 2 why The DUFF works: wit.  Whilst not a gut-buster of a film, and filled with material that again will date this thing substantially in a few years’ time – this is the kind of movie where teenagers are able to make the requisite cyber-bullying video go viral by saying out loud to each other if they want it to “Go viral” before sending it off – this is still a very funny movie, one that roots the majority of its jokes in character work and teenage behaviour at this moment in time.  It’s the kind of film that throws around constant references to various social media and teenage aspirations – Bella Thorne’s character’s dream goal in life is to be a reality TV star – but at no point caused me to cringe horrifically at their mentioning because the film doesn’t loudly judge these things or just name-drop in an attempt to be hip.  It all feels somewhat natural, even the inevitable “older characters reminiscing about non-technology days” tangent.

There’s a similar naturalness to the jokes.  Because it’s not aiming for giant major laughs, the film manages to get a good flow going rarely stopping for an extended sequence of beating a joke into the ground – although there are one or two and they are still rather funny thanks to the third reason that we’re about to get to.  This is not really a setpiece comedy movie which means that there are no major laughs, but instead comes with the vastly preferred trade-off of having consistently funny material excellently delivered by a great cast headed up by…

The third and final reason why The DUFF really works: Mae frickin’ Whitman.  Now, full disclosure, I adore Mae Whitman and have done for ages.  Her resume is the kind that most actresses would kill to have, she does a tonne of voice acting, and she is an extremely talented and relentlessly charming performer.  Hell, I was alerted to and excited for this film by the fact that her name was in the lead role and I couldn’t wait to see what she would do with the opportunity to headline a film.  Unsurprisingly, she doesn’t waste this chance.  Hell, that’s an understatement; she absolutely kills it, she’s phenomenal here!

Whitman, you see, commits.  She commits.  No matter what the script asks her to do – whether that be snark her way through the requisite voice over, or believably-without-overdoing-it convey Bianca’s emotional upset over social rejection, or spend several minutes strutting about in ill-suited makeover clothes whilst sexually coming onto mannequins in a sequence that should not be anywhere near as funny as it is – she’s there leading the charge, throwing herself into it with palpable gleeful abandon.  That natural likeability practically becomes a weapon, actively challenging the viewer not to fall for and root for Bianca, and her comic talents, especially her way with facial expressions, are given ample room to work their magic.  In a just world, this would be the performance that launches her into the big time if she wanted it to.  Seriously, she friggin’ kills it.

Admittedly, I have seen The DUFF multiple times before, under different names and usually much better than it’s done here.  However, I still don’t consider that much of a knock.  I have a soft spot for a good charming teen comedy, which is very much what The DUFF is.  It has a charm to it that makes the aesthetics, if not the underlying mechanics that power the thing, feel like its own thing, it’s got an enjoyable wit to it that got me laughing at various levels throughout most all of its 101 minutes, and it has a powerhouse Mae Whitman performance backed up by strong supporting work – particularly by Alison Janney, Bella Thorne, and Robbie Amell.  I went in wanting pretty much all of that and got almost precisely that.  It’s fun, it’s sweet, it’s a teen comedy, and when those are good they can be really good.

Or to put it another way, it’s a film that makes prominent usage of the song “#selfie” and the rest of the film is so good and so enjoyable that I didn’t immediately want to barge into the projector room and set the place ablaze.  I very much class The DUFF as a win, in my book.

Callum Petch has got muscle, he is tough.  Follow him on the Twitters (@CallumPetch) and listen to Screen 1 on Hullfire Radio every Monday at 9PM BST (site link)!