Synopsis: Welcome to Westerburg High, where Veronica Sawyer (Winona Ryder) is beginning to tire of her membership in the powerful yet cruel clique of ‘Heathers’. When Veronica falls for the mysterious new kid Jason Dean (Christian Slater), their dislike for the Heathers quickly escalates into a savage cycle of murder, suicide and Slushies. Now that her teenage angst has a body count, are Veronica and JD headed for the prom…or hell?
eyelights: Christian slater. Wynona Ryder. its satirical look at teen lives.
eyesores: Kim Walker.
“Dear Diary, my teen-angst bullshit now has a body count.”
A lot of people who grew up in the eighties remember the John Hughes films fondly; they were some of the first to explore teen angst with humour and empathy. His movies were so popular that they’ve transcended generations and still speak to people now. In fact, teen movies today are still influenced by these iconic John Hughes pictures.
1988’s ‘Heathers’ is essentially John Hughes with a dark side: it takes many of the teen clichés (cliques, conformity, peer pressure, eating disorders, teen suicide, …etc.) and callously makes fun of them. It’s a cruel film that spares no one: the students, the parents, the teachers, male, female, hetero, gay, bookish, jock, …etc. No one escapes its barbed-wire satire.
Although it failed at the box office at the time, reviews for it have been consistently strong, and it was even ranked #5 in Entertainment Weekly’s 2006 list of 50 Best High School Movies. It has unsurprisingly gained a cult following over the years, spawning the inevitable multiple home video releases (VHS, laserdisc, DVD, special editions) in the process.
‘Heathers’ is the story of Veronica Sawyer, a gifted student who has been recruited by Heathers Chandler, Duke and McNamara, her school’s most popular girl clique, but who is growing tired of their mean girls antics and their ploys to shore up their status. Enter J.D., a rebellious new student who intrigues and befriends Veronica: his volatility will have massive repercussions.
I first watched this something like 15-20 years ago. It had already garnered a reputation by then and a friend and I were curious to see what it was all about. Unfortunately, I think that it might have been too dark for me at the time. Or too subtle. Either way, I didn’t find it all that funny, and I remember being somewhat disappointed with it.
However, with time, a part of me wanted to reassess the picture. It’s a fact that my sense of humour has expanded considerably since then, and I appreciate dark comedies far more than I once did. And so it is that, given that I was putting together a small list of comedies that revolve around suicide, I dusted off ‘Heathers’ for the first time in well over a decade.
The thing that surprised me the most about the picture is just how much sardonic humour is injected in the dialogues: almost every other sentence is a jab at someone or something. You can’t afford to be distracted. I wouldn’t go so far as to say that ‘Heather’ is dialogue-based, but it could easily be translated to the stage without losing much of what made the movie work.
There’s the scornful observations that Veronica and J.D. make of their peers and society in general, of course, but even the exchanges between the Heathers, the faculty members, the jocks (and other subgroups) are ripe with mockery. The message, courtesy of Veronica’s mom is: “When teenagers complain that they want to be treated like human beings, it’s usually because they are being treated like human beings.”
As with ‘The Chumscrubber‘, the parents are designed to be amusing, well-meaning people who blur the lines in their parent-child relationships. For instance, Veronica and her dad have humourous interchanges that are astonishingly disrespectful (which the mom just laughs off), while J.D. and his dad playfully exchange roles when they talk to each other.
‘Heathers’ wouldn’t be worth a damn if its cast couldn’t hold it up, of course. Supported by a super strong set of actors (collectively, because some of its parts are not so good), it transcends the limitations of such low-budget fare. Had the dialogues been delivered in the wrong tone, surely the humour would had the impact of a lead balloon.
But, spearheaded by then-rising stars Wynona Ryder and Christian Slater, ‘Heathers’ soars even in its weakest moments: Ryder is excellent in the part of a disillusioned pretty girl with brains (although her delivery can be over-the-top). Meanwhile, Slater has a proto-Jack Nicholson thing going for him: the eyes, the intakes of breaths, …etc., all reminded us of dear ol’ Jack.
What makes ‘Heathers’ so dark is that J.D. is psychotically knocking off anyone that he and Veronica have grievances with (with her able assistance – until she thinks better of it, naturally). So what started as cool defiance turns into utter insanity as he goes on a serial killing spree, hiding his actions under the guise of suicide.
I think that this is where I tuned out the first time and, even now, this is when the film loses its edge. Where it was once excellent satire, indulging in a twisted fantasy (and walking a fine line of it), it suddenly lost its sense of humour and walked into the dark side, delivering a potent threat. It was no longer fun or funny.
Of course, maybe that was the point. Perhaps the filmmakers wanted to deliver both stinging satire and a reminder that this was just a joke, that reality is more shocking than fantasy.
Until then, though, I had enjoyed how, because of the Heathers’ popularity, suicide was suddenly become a popular thing to do. When the school counsellor preaches “Whether to kill yourself or not is one of the most important decisions a teenager can make.”, you can’t help but chuckle. It was a sad reminder that in the media age, anything can become a sensation.
And when the jock’s father ironically states at his funeral “My son’s a homosexual, and I love him. I love my dead gay son.”, you know that J.D. is right when he grimly reflects “Wonder how he’d react if his son had a limp wrist with a pulse.”. It’s cold, but it’s a perfectly justified condemnation of the homophobia and hypocrisy that permeated the culture at the time.
‘Heathers’ is really dark, and it’s hardly surprising that it wasn’t a hit at the time of its release – it’s far too unconventional for mass consumption. But, with time, it’s had a chance to connect with disgruntled youth, offering them an absurd alternate take on a reality that oppresses them. When you’re an outsider, you often just want to be understood.
“If you were happy every day of your life you wouldn’t be a human being. You’d be a game-show host.”
‘Heathers’ is a reminder that someone else out there gets it.
Dates of viewing: Jun 20-21, 2014