There’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.
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.
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.