There aren’t any films that escape looking dated 30 years after their release. Michael Lehmann’s Heathers is strange in that sense, managing to capture absolutely the style and tone of the 80’s, whilst still feeling scarily relevant today. Released in 1988, Heathers follows Winona Ryder’s Veronica as she navigates new found popularity in high school. With it comes inescapable friendship to those girls, you know the ones – 3 in this case, who all happen to be named, you guessed it, Heather. Frustrated by the way her friends act and treat their fellow students, Veronica seeks comfort in the arms of the new, ‘cool’ kid, JD (Christian Slater). But when JD jokingly suggests a violent solution to Veronica’s Heather problems, the film takes a turn for the surreal.
It’s difficult to say anything negative about Daniel Waters’ script. Nailing teen angst more effectively than anything before, and much copied since, each of the archetype characters thrive in the ludicrousness that takes hold of Westerburg High School. It is here that Heathers differs from John Hughes fodder of the period. Those 5 stereotypes Hughes introduced in The Breakfast Club are here too, but they feel more natural somehow, more real despite the deliberate step away from reality. Yes, the popular girl likes the jock and not the nerd, and everyone has their own issues beneath those regimented facades. But the slipping of that mask is here less contrived, forced by threat rather than proximity. Heathers achieves nuance that way, escaping the clichés Hughes imposed on a generation, and delivering a host of strongly developed characters – even characters with just one or two moments in frame. Not to mention some of the sharpest dialogue ever penned: “Fuck me gently with a chainsaw,” Heather Chandler says, and we’re just getting started.
Ryder’s performance is surprisingly complex, perfectly showcasing the competing emotions bubbling away inside a seventeen year old. One minute she wants to be popular, the next to be in love with the outcast. Because of Ryder’s naïve excitement, childish anger and brilliant sarcastic deadpan, nothing feels wrong for the character. “I just want my high school to be a nice place,” she prays, and you get the feeling that in that moment, she means it.
Prior to his wonderful performance in Mr Robot, JD was probably Slater’s best role, and certainly his most iconic. He feels utterly at ease in the part, as if no one else could embody such stylish psychopathy.
Pulling all of the strands together with a firm hand, Lehmann’s work here is easily the strongest of his career. His vision is eclectic, but works seamlessly with the tongue in cheek tone. A stylistic ancestor, in a way, to Zhang Yimou’s Hero, the colour palette here is totally on point. Red represents power within the school, but Veronica is never found out of blue – even at a funeral. The score is wonderfully reminiscent of that 80’s sound, emanating Beverly Hills Cop and Manhunter to name just two.
“Whether to kill yourself or not is one of the most important decisions a teenager can make,” hippy teacher Pauline advises. Heathers never takes itself seriously enough to be a cautionary tale, but that doesn’t detract from the poignancy of the events taking place. When JD eventually announces that this microcosm of high school life is emblematic of society on a grand scale, he’s sort of right. Sure, we may grow out of those uncomfortable teen stereotypes (if they exist at all), but it is undeniable that the modern world is governed by popularism, a proclivity for mass hysteria, and violent terror tactics – all of which exist within the world of Westerburg. Waters’ script may not be prophetic, but it remains relevant 30 years on. And besides that, it’s a hell of a film.
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