Year of Release: 1989 Directed by Michael Lehmann. Starring Winona Ryder, Christian Slater, Kim Walker, Lisanne Falk, Shannon Doherty, and Penelope Milford.
A friend once quipped, “There are two rules of humor: 1) nothing is funny; 2) anything can be funny. Both nothing and anything must be taken absolutely literally.” That is not to say that any and all jokes are funny and sensitive subjects are a free for all when it comes to humor. Rather, it is to say that with proper care and diligence, laughter in response to sensitive subjects can be an appropriate means of attacking the powerful and defending the weak.
Heathers is a film that makes jokes about taboo subjects including, but not limited to: teen suicide, date rape, homophobia, body shaming, bullying, eating disorders, narcissistic exploitative teachers, neglectful parents, and school shootings. And in every single one of its jokes, the target is the victimizer/abuser and the way our culture’s unhealthy obsessions with popularity and trying to make sure our team is the winning team perpetuate the oppression and exploitation of the most vulnerable.
Exclusive tribalism is mocked from the first scene when the titular clique of high school mean girls, all named Heather except for their lackey Veronica Sawyer (Winona Ryder), exert their self-claimed superiority over the rest of their high school first through humiliating an overweight girl named Martha and then by forcing the entire school to participate in a lunchtime poll, thought up by the ringleader Heather Chandler (Kim Walker).
The cruelty of humiliating Martha is contrasted with the sadistic glee of the Heathers, which sets up an unremarkable mockery of high school cliques for being exclusive and mean. However, the lunchtime poll is carried out with unapologetic aplomb by the Heathers despite its inherent stupidity, for which any other student would be mocked. This contrast makes it clear that things such as fashionable and the “in crowd” are determined by the whims of whomever can be the bossiest and most snobbish while getting others to envy them.
The first push back Veronica experiences against that poll, “If you received five million dollars, and on the same day aliens said they were going to blow up the planet in three days, what would you do with the money?” comes from obvious cool kid and scoundrel JD (Christian Slater, blatantly channeling Cuckoo’s Nest Jack Nicholson). We know JD is cool because he wears all black, openly tells Veronica how stupid Heather Chandler’s poll question is, and says “Greetings and salutations!” instead of hello. When threatened by the two school bullies, he also pulls a gun and shoots two blanks at them after calling them assholes to their face.
At this point every future plot point has been foreshadowed, and the stage is set for one of the darkest and funniest high school comedies, surpassing the similar high school satires of subsequent decades: Clueless and Mean Girls. One substantial reason that Heathers resonates so much more strongly for me than those other high school comedies is that is not afraid to follow its premise to the morbid conclusion necessitated by the tribalism and obsessive desire for coolness. Indeed, with its blend of horror and comedy, Heathers serves as a sort of link between Brian De Palma’s Carrie and the high school comedies of the ‘90’s and later decades.
Veronica’s trajectory in Heathers follows that of a horror film, albeit one punctuated with many moments of humor. Witnessing JD intimidate the two bullies whom she despises sparks an instant attraction, which leads to an inevitable partnership as Veronica transitions from a Heathers wannabe to a vigilante agent for justice within her high school. The problem is she abandoned her snobbish clique for an even more exclusive and dehumanizing one.
This blend of comedy and horror is perfectly captured in Daniel Waters’ brilliant dialogue, which is mannered enough to be obviously artificial compared to actual teenage talk, and yet is simultaneously pointed and stinging. Lines such as: “Dear diary, my teen angst bullshit has a body count,” and “I use my grand IQ to decide what color lip gloss to wear in the morning and how to hit three keggers before curfew,” expose a broken world while belittling the mentalities that lead to such distortions.
The obsession with coolness and being a member of the right team or club is the primary target of Heathers’ satire. What is most remarkable, however, is not the film’s ruthless critique of that attitude among high schoolers nor how it shows the horrific yet logical conclusions of such selfish worldviews, but that it shows such shallowness also extends to adults as the teachers, parents, and principal respond to the increasing number of tragedies by selfishly using the supposed teen suicides as a platform to push their preconceived notions.
The destructive phoniness on display throughout the entire film is succinctly summarized by the highly stylized opening montage of the three Heathers playing croquet in outfits matching their balls, walking straight through flower beds, and hitting the balls into Veronica’s head instead of croquet hoops. This entire sequence is underscored by “Que será, será,” both a reminder of the childhood innocence which has been lost by the high school preoccupation with cliques and a commentary on the tragic inevitably such mentalities lead to when taken to extremes.
As Veronica, Winona Ryder gives one of her best performances, torn between the desire to be a member of the cool club and wanting to make the world a kinder place for everyone. As that tension leads her down an increasingly horrific road, the film capitalizes on several moments for her to experience actual humanity and compassion, serving as a sharp prick to her guilty conscience. Her delivery of her final line to JD is pitch perfect in its condemnation of their bad choices and as a triumphant rejection of the mentality that caused so many of the film’s tragedies in the first place. “You know what I want? Cool guys like you out of my life.”
Personal Recommendation: A+
Content Advisory: Long distance shot of date rape, multiple non-graphic murders, underage promiscuity, drinking, and smoking, recurring foul language. MPAA rating: R
Audience: Teens and up with discernment.