Heathers

Heathers-PosterThere’s a delicate balance to making a dark comedy. Things have to be wrong, or it’s not dark. Yet it can’t be too wrong or it’s hard to laugh at — or, alternately, it has to be so far over the top that it becomes funny again. The absurdity of the situation has to be apparent all along the way, and yet at the same time it has to remain believable. There aren’t many films which can pull off this balancing act; Heathers is one such film, thanks largely to the strengths of its actors.

Veronica (Winona Ryder) is a junior in high school. She’s a member of the most powerful clique in school, which is headed by a trio of girls all named Heather. Heather Chandler (Kim Walker) is the leader of the clique, an unrepentant bully who uses cutting remarks, snobbery, and embarrassing situations to establish dominance over both her group and the school at large. Heather McNamara (Lisanne Falk) and Heather Duke (Shannen Doherty) follow along slavishly, with Duke even seeming relatively cowed by Chandler. Veronica goes along for the ride as a semi-respected hanger-on, until she realizes that what she has aren’t friends, but merely acquaintances she’s afraid to anger. She wants a school without the influence of the Heathers. While she plots to take them down a peg through pranks, her new boyfriend, rebellious Jason “J.D.” Dean (Christian Slater) has an alternate idea: kill the Heathers.

Heathers-0177

When trying to intimidate someone, it is important to first make sure they aren’t crazier than you are.

Let’s get the uncomfortable part of this out of the way first: yes, this is a comedy about people being bullied to the point of inciting school violence. It’s a little difficult to believe that director Michael Lehmann would be allowed to make such a film in today’s environment. As it is, the film occupies a weird little spot where it’s simultaneously dated and relatable. The fashions, slang, cars, references, and even the names — the 1980s were a peak period for “Heathers” — loudly proclaim this to be a movie made in the late 80s. And yet the themes are arguably even more relevant today than they were back then, a time when “school violence” mostly meant a couple of kids having a fistfight in the cafeteria. The violence which seemed over-the-top in 1988 now seems all too believable. While there’s certainly some meaning to be gleaned here for today’s audiences — if nothing else, it’s worth noting how much havoc J.D. is able to cause purely because everybody’s looking in another direction — anybody viewing this today is going to have to reconcile the fact that they’re laughing at something that, in real life, would be a thing of horror.

But that’s often the way comedies are, especially dark comedies, and most people will laugh at Heathers. This is a witty script with a lot of comic quotable lines, and a fair number of funny situations. It’s also an intelligent movie; the satire here is razor sharp, poking fun at teen angst, parental negligence, educator cluelessness, and the problems that result when the three collide.

What really sells the film, however, is how believable its actors are. This was one of Christian Slater’s earliest roles, but it should surprise nobody today that he effortlessly pulls off the trick of seeming likeable and rakish initially and outright psychotic later — yet still cheerful. Winona Ryder makes the perfect frustrated follower as Veronica; she objects to what she’s doing no matter who she’s being led by, but whether it’s the Heathers or J.D., she still follows. And the Heathers themselves are fantastic caricatures of self-absorbed teen queens; Shannen Doherty arguably gets the most opportunity to act, as Heather Duke transitions from being the low-ranking Heather to the Alpha Bitch, but they all get their moments and all feel natural as characters.

Heathers-0057

Feckless false-friend fashionistas.

There’s a clever, if obvious, visual theme with the clothing of the main characters (as well as their equipment in their frequent croquet games). The Heathers coordinate in primary colors, each always wearing the same color. Heather McNamara, the follower, dresses in yellow, a color which is noticeable yet fades into the background next to the other primary colors. Heather Chandler dresses in red, eye-catching and dominant — and the letterman jackets the high school seniors wear are also red, giving an early visual cue that they have the same bullying tendencies as Heather. Heather Duke starts off wearing blue, establishing her presence as the least of the Heathers, but transitions to red as she starts taking dominance. And Veronica dresses in purple, as dark and subdued as blue, but a secondary color instead of a primary one; even in her fashion, she’s just an extension of the Heathers and not quite part of the group. J.D., of course, dresses all in black, the antithesis of all other colors, establishing his place outside the social hierarchy of the high school.

Heathers is an intelligent and funny satire, a dark comedy that pulls off both parts of the balancing act with skill. This twisted take on the traditional coming-of-age story is easily worth checking out and will reward a viewer with a lot of laughs.

Rating: 4 Stars

About Morgan R. Lewis

Fan of movies and other media
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19 Responses to Heathers

  1. This and “Pump Up the Volume” are my two favorite Slater films.

    Good observation about the costume design and color choices. I haven’t watched this in a long time and forgot about that.

    The dialogue between JD and his dad always freaked me out.

  2. Its a fun flick, and a definite 80s cult fave…

    But you’re right, the big story here may be the commentary on society. Not so much that the movie makes (though it obviously has its merits) but in the fact that in the 80s where this was released, this was fantasy and humor. Nowadays, this has become all too real and no one would be laughing 😦

    • Yeah… it definitely requires a person to take a step back in order to enjoy this one nowadays. I’m fairly good at that, but even so, as a first-time viewer there were a few moments when I found myself thinking “wow” at the thought of laughing at some of it. The climax in particular.

  3. Bubbawheat says:

    I also watched this for the first time recently, and on the same day watched the Amanda Todd video for the first time which made the Heathers as characters more real and less funny. I also think the choice of having them come from high class, like with the croquet, made it less realistic, but also less relatable to me personally. It also has the distinction of being the movie that got me kicked off my podcast, so while I do see the value in it, it’s just didn’t click with me.

    • Other guys on the podcast long established fans, I’m guessing? If so, I can certainly understand some sour feelings on the subject; it’s hard enough viewing a film for the first time among people who love it, let alone if you’re just “OK” on it.

  4. Very nice write-up, Morgan! πŸ™‚

  5. Pingback: Farewell, 2012! | Morgan on Media

  6. Dan says:

    Along with True Romance and Pump Up The Volume, this is my favourite Christian Slater film. Such an underrated actor. Winona Ryder is terrific too.

  7. Excellent review. One of my all time favourite films πŸ˜€

  8. mistylayne says:

    Great article! I love this movie so much – never once noticed the color scheme though – excellent observation. πŸ™‚

  9. The Vern says:

    Im a little late to comment but I also wanted to second Misty’s repsonse to the way you describe the color changes of each character. Yeah this would have never got green lighted today and I’m glad that it got made when it did. Another Great Post.

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