directed by Michael Lehmann
(Anchor Bay, 1988)

I often try to share movies from my younger days with my daughter. Usually, she rolls her eyes when I suggest a title and says, "Do I have to watch it?" But this week I proposed Heathers and, without giving much of the story away, I told her it was about being emo before being emo was a thing. I said it was about mean girls before Mean Girls. And she said -- almost reluctantly, I think -- "That sounds good. When can we watch it?"

She loved it. Score one for Dad!

Sure, there were a few uncomfortable moments -- there was a little more overt sexuality than my wife and I remembered -- but the movie was as good as I remembered.

It stars Winona Ryder in a defining role as Veronica Sawyer, the only non-Heather in the ruling clique at Westerburg High School. She, along with the Heathers Chandler (Kim Walker), Duke (Shannen Doherty) and McNamara (Lisanne Falk), rule the school with an iron fist and a curled lip of disdain, mocking their underlings with extreme prejudice and crushing spirits and egos at every turn. Veronica is increasingly uncomfortable with the situation, but she doesn't express it -- even to herself, really -- until she meets Jason Dean (Christian Slater), the new boy in school.

Suddenly, Veronica's self-loathing and hatred for her "friends" finds release, and it isn't long before she and J.D. are plotting Heather No. 1's murder. Sure, Veronica doesn't really plan to kill anyone, but she goes along for the joke ... and suddenly there's a body on the floor and everything is different in world.

Or, not. J.D. leads Veronica down a merry path to stage the murder as a suicide, and soon Heather No. 1 -- the vilest of the bunch -- is canonized by students and faculty alike as a saint. J.D.'s plans for Westerburg High don't end there, however, and Veronica seems trapped in his web. Soon, suicide is the latest high-school trend.

Heathers is a darkly funny film, with the emphasis strongly on dark. Sure, it's worth a chuckle when goofy school counselor Pauline Fleming (Penelope Milford) holds a student "love-in" to celebrate life, but the focus here is always on teen angst, anger and suicide. There's real pain here, but also a shining example of the resilience of your average teen, who can mourn the death of a friend, mug for the news camera and wonder what's on TV without missing a beat.

Through it all, Veronica remains the voice of morality, even as she forges suicide notes for her classmates, and Ryder is perfect for the part. J.D., on the other hand, is anarchy personified, and Slater waves his amoral banter like a flag. The two are the ideal pair for a movie that shines a bright light on the teenage perspective -- and then concentrates its attention on the shadows.

review by
Tom Knapp

2 April 2011

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