Mean Girls with Murder
When I was in high school (yes, I realize a lot of my reviews start this way), it wasn’t one of those massive schools where no one knows your name and a bunch of uber-popular people rule over it all. There were about 60 kids in my graduating class, and I knew every one of them by name, even if I wasn’t friends with them.
There was no ruling caste. No one was that influential. True, it was cliquey in that friends tended to hang out with friends and didn’t stray into other organized groups, and the kids whose parents were more involved in the running of the school saw more benefits than the kids whose parents weren’t. But for the most part those kids were pretty nice people, so I don’t think anyone minded too much.
So I feel like maybe I missed out on some crucial high school experience, because movies keep telling me that everyone at school is either a queen bee or a nerd. If you’re the former you’re a b*tch, and if you’re the latter then you’d best get out of the way. And that’s the world where Heathers takes place.
Still working right along the theme of “movies that are older than me,” I watched this movie at the suggestion of a school friend (university, not high school. And in some sort of cosmic twist, she was one of four Nicoles in my program). It’s supposedly a black comedy that jabs a rapier into the teenage condition and sheds some light on what it’s really like to go through high school, with a few obvious differences along the way.
Heathers starred a young Winona Ryder and Christian Slater at the beginning of their acting careers, and I would make some comment about how they totally influenced alternative cinema at the time except that I haven’t seen anything else either of them did apart from Edward Scissorhands and even though it was tragically beautiful, it creeps me out too much to watch it.
Three girls, all named Heather, rule their high school. They also have a weird intellectual friend, Veronica (Ryder), who hangs out with them for some inexplicable reason. Then Veronica meets JD (Slater) and falls hard for him, and her dislike for the lead Heather turns to murder.
What follows is a Bonnie-and-Clyde-esque rampage ending in the deaths of several people they dislike, staged to look like suicides. The movie climaxes with JD planning to blow up the entire school to send a message to the world, but when Veronica foils his plan, he blows himself up instead. And Veronica — stoic, satisfied, and set to become the new leader of the school — decides to run things a little differently than the Heather before her.
I took a little while to process this movie, but I’m still not sure what to make of it. So let’s try breaking it down together, you and me. Maybe the most important parts of it is the power of suggestion. After three people “kill themselves” (read: are brutally murdered), suicide is seen as the cool new thing to do, because all the popular people are doing it.
One of the Heathers takes pills into the bathroom after she’s humiliated by her friends, and it’s only through Veronica’s intervention that she doesn’t die. Then there’s Martha, an overweight but seemingly lovely girl who’s so distressed by her life and the fact that she’s the butt of people’s jokes that she walks out into traffic with a note pinned to her shirt.
Everyone sees the so-called suicides as beautiful things. Veronica notes that “suicide gave Heather depth, [a football player] a soul, and [another football player] a brain.” The two footballers I just mentioned were staged to look like a gay couple who had killed themselves together because they felt like the world wouldn’t accept them.
In reality, they were a couple of douchebros whose only meaningful contribution to the school was sexual harassment and reasonable skills with a football. But in death, everyone saw them as martyrs, as misunderstood teenagers who just couldn’t handle their problems and sought escape.
But even when we look at it through that lens, there’s some whole other strange level of coping mechanism shown here. One of the teachers passes around a suicide note to her class, while another teacher comments that she’s glad the deceased figured out how to use “myriad” in a sentence in the same note.
Then there’s a TV crew that comes to the school to film how the students are coping with the loss of their classmates, and it’s a display of hand-holding and cheering and loving that certainly wouldn’t’ve happened while those kids were alive.
There are actually a lot of social issues that Heathers looks at. Slater’s JD is psychotic to a point that’s past institutionalization, past prison, past even his own death. And the scary part is, he actually starts to sound kind of sensible by the end. One thing he says is, “Society nods its head at any horror the American teenager can think upon itself.”
I’m not American, but obviously I still get what he means. For some reason adults are willing to accept a lot of what teenagers do, saying “kids will be kids” and “they’re only young once.” If they drink or do drugs, it’s expected because they want to rebel. If they get pregnant, it’s expected because they’re reckless and don’t know any better. If they kill themselves, it’s because they aren’t considered strong or mature enough to decide to stay alive. If they kill other people, it’s because they’re clearly troubled.
Personally I don’t agree with most of that, or at least I would very much like not to: I think teenagers are nearly as mature as adults, and in some cases even more so (I’ve met some pretty amazing teenagers and quite a few adults who are simply too dumb to function). These kids aren’t lacking in brains or common sense. They just don’t have the personal experience that adults do, so their decisions aren’t informed by “I’ve seen/done this before and it hasn’t worked out. Maybe I shouldn’t do that.”
My point is, JD fits into that mould pretty perfectly. His mother killed herself by parking her butt in a library that was about to be demolished, and his dad is clearly a bit unhinged, too. So it’s not surprising that JD turned into a psychopath who loves him some sweet, sweet murderin’. But that’s exactly the point I’m trying to make: I said it’s not surprising. I nodded my head at the horror the American teenager thought upon himself. I reasoned that it made sense because I was looking for sense in the midst of all the chaos.
Sometimes, there just isn’t any sense. I know we’re hardwired to look for the sense because we can’t stand for there not to be order (especially for those of us who colour-code our books and organize the contents of our fridge alphabetically), but it isn’t always there. And I think by looking for sense in a situation that doesn’t make any, we’re pigeonholing the people involved into tidy little roles that keep all the details separate and exactly how they should be.
And really, isn’t that what high school is all about?
As far as ’80s movies go, I think this one set a particular standard: it kicked off the “mean girls” genre, a genre that explored what it was like to be a teenager in high school. And I think that’s why so many people have connected with it. It uses the darkest kind of comedy to show us the thoughts running through every teenager’s head.
Am I saying that every teenager wants to kill their friends? I’m sure some of them do, but I’m also sure that they’re in the underwhelming minority. “It’s one thing to want someone out of your life, but it’s another thing to serve them a wake-up cup full of liquid drainer,” said Veronica. No, that’s not it; I think it’s just a way of showing us all the different conflicts that teenagers face every day and how they cope with it.
Sometimes they get humiliated at a party. Sometimes a dirtbag makes a move and destroys their reputation when they don’t reciprocate. Sometimes boyfriends turn out to be the worst kind of jerks. Sometimes — and it’s always a tragedy when it happens, no matter who the person is or what they’ve done — they lose their friends.
After one of the Heathers tries to kill herself, Veronica says, “If you were happy every day of your life, you wouldn’t be a human being. You’d be a game show host.” Out of the mouths of teenagers often comes the most profound wisdom. Everyone has those days where they just don’t want to keep going. Everyone knows what it’s like to be miserable for one reason or another, even if you’re blonde and your name is Heather.
I guess overall, I’d say this was a pretty decent movie that touched on some tough subjects. Some of the dialogue flew right over my head, but I did understand things like small-town cow tipping and the appeal of Christian Slater’s face. To me, it’s one of those movies that was socially relevant and passably entertaining, which is always a good combination. I’m not sure if I’d ever watch Heathers again on my own, but if it happened to be on in the background or if someone else was watching it, I’d probably pay attention.
Final Grade: B-
- “Teenage Suicide: Don’t You Do It” by Big Fun sounds like the greatest song of all time. Someone make it happen at once.
- “I just killed my best friend.” “And your worst enemy.” “Same difference.” To girls who know anything about being friends with other girls, this is scarily profound.
- What was with the swapping around of father and son roles that JD and his dad were doing? Did I miss something important there, apart from the fact that they’re both pretty messed up?
- If they’re friends, why the heck are the Heathers shooting croquet balls at Veronica’s head?
- Heather, stop trying to make very happen. It’s not going to happen. That is all.