Friday, January 31, 2014

Heathers - 1988

"Heathers" - 1988
Dir. by Michael Lehmann - 1 hr. 43 min.


by Clayton Hollifield

I just want you to understand that no generation's ennui and nihilism can never be as dark and stifling as this.  I submit as proof the film "Heathers."  When people talk about "dark comedies," it's still frequently performed at a safe emotional distance, where horrific things are laughed at, yet still remain fairly implausible and unconnected to many people's everyday life (or the story just wallows in the "awfulness" of what's going on, with little emotional impact).  "Heathers" doesn't play that game; the story arc follows the pursuit of callowness, the dawning awareness of the effect of that on the people in this setting, and then the futility of trying to stuff all of that back into the bottle.  And while the characters are frequently flippant and deliberately mean, very few of them learn anything from anyone's behavior.

The titular "Heathers" are a trio of popular girl sharing the same first name, led by Heather Chandler (Kim Walker), a cruel girl who wields her power maliciously, and also including Heather McNamara (Lisanne Falk) and Heather Duke (Shannen Doherty), and they're joined by the somewhat reluctant Veronica (Winona Ryder).  Veronica has an eye for the new kid, J.D. (Christian Slater), immediately gets in trouble for pulling a gun on a pair of jocks who try to bully him in the school cafeteria.  Veronica and H-Chizzle fall out after attending a college party where Veronica gets sick (maybe she drank too much, maybe she was drugged), and Chandles threatens to lord it over her once school resumes the next week.  J.D. and Veronica end up sort of accidentally poisoning H-Cheesy, and successfully frame it as a suicide.  And then there are more "suicides," and the stakes continue to grow.

There is a layer to "Heathers" that is easy to enjoy and super-digestible - the dialogue is snappy, unique, and such a document of it's time that, whether or not people actually talked this way before the film came out, they started to afterwards.  I haven't checked, but I suspect that the list of "quotes" from "Heathers" is actually larger than the entire internet put together, porn sites included.  This film is literally soaking in people trying to deal with their environment through flippancy, cruelty, and feigned boredom, which sets off Veronica's panic from losing control of everything around her, even her own actions.  And this isn't only a talky, dark film, it's also got a good visual sense (even more than just having some seriously '80s fashion going on).  There's a great visual scene involving a funeral and the entire congregation wearing 3D glasses, but there is also a steady stream of little touches and details that aren't acknowledged as being out of the ordinary (like one of the Heathers touching up her hair with holy water), but add up to make "Heathers" completely awesome.

The story itself is a fairly harrowing one.  There are a few ways to look at it; you could approach it from the idea that popularity is born and maintained out of cruelty, you could take the angle that all it takes is one unhinged (albeit charismatic) kid with a little know-how and a lot of stick-to-it-iveness to bring down hundreds.  There's also the view that you can never stomp out cruelty, not among teenagers nor adults (as Veronica's mom points out, when teenagers get upset about not being treated like people, that's usually when they're most being treated like adults treat one another - a cynical and incisive view), because someone will always pop up and assume an alpha role and wield that power to break people.  You also have a very intelligent, self-aware character in Veronica, who is unable to keep herself from doing awful things.  And if she's not able to stop herself, then what chance does anyone else have?  Students openly mock a trendy anti-teen suicide song, one of the Heathers tries to kill herself because people laugh at her for feeling overwhelmed, unfazed jocks will still try to beat up nerds in the parking lot outside of a funeral, gay-baiting and gay-bashing is a knee-jerk reaction to confusion.  This high school is not a jungle, it's a buffet for assholes.

And one of the most intellectually bothersome points made here is that people just want to wrap things up neatly and as quickly as possible, so they can not have to think about anything and move on with their lives.  Even in a situation where teenagers are seemingly killing themselves at an unbelievable rate, the detail that sells a pair of football players being gay is that they're found with a bottle of mineral water.  That's all it really takes to tie the whole situation up with a bow.  If the students are dumb and mean, looking at the adults in the film doesn't promise a richer, more meaningful future for anyone.  In the end, complete evil doesn't prevail, but things aren't resolved in a way that will allow you to put the idea that it could prevail to rest.  "Heathers" is a nasty little piece of business, one that's designed to stick with you even as you're laughing along and enjoying the tons of little things that make it a fantastic, rich, detailed film.

4 / 5 - Streaming

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