Minding the Gap: Heathers

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May 2, 2012 by abbyo

There are blind spots, and then there are blind spots. You guys know what I mean. There are movies you haven’t seen because they’re obscure, or they seem daunting. Movies that you’ve always meant to see but haven’t, because you had to be in the right mood, like “The Seventh Seal” or “Badlands.” Then there are ones that you have no good excuse for not seeing. These are the ones you don’t tell people you haven’t seen, because the reaction is something like this:

So, readers, it’s confession time: before this week, I had never seen “Heathers.” Now you know—the secret’s out. And while I’m glad I’ve finally seen the movie, I’m still not sure how I feel about it. “Heathers” has a wicked sense of humor, to be sure, and some nice performances. But, to quote Winona Ryder’s character Veronica, “it leaves a bad taste in my mouth.” Due to the real-life events that have occurred since the movie’s release, a film that might once have seemed edgy and absurd now hits a little too close for comfort.

For those of you still living in fear of Keegan-Michael Key-caliber scorn, here’s a quick plot synopsis. Veronica, played by Ryder, is a smart high school girl who’s sold her soul to be part of the popular crowd, a clique of girls all named (wait for it) Heather. The lead Heather, played by Kim Walker, is a vapid, cruel girl who revels in publicly embarrassing her classmates and spreading rumors. At the same time Veronica’s secret hatred of her friend reaches a boiling point, she meets a mysterious new student, J.D. (Christian Slater), who talks like Jack Nicholson, and wears his disdain for the popular crowd on his sleeve. The charmingly psychotic J.D. ropes Veronica into taking revenge on her fellow students, resulting in a series of murders disguised as suicides.

I know that premise doesn’t exactly set “Heathers” up to be the happiest of movies, but its morbid humor and butchering of the John Hughes teen flicks that dominated the decade is smart, bleakly true, and fun to watch. Daniel Waters’ script, definitely an influence on writers like “Juno’s” Diablo Cody, is also great, full of invented slang terms that sound ridiculous, but still feel authentic. The movie also gets right the often out-of-touch nature of teen-adult relationships, where conversations stay superficial, and the anxieties and dangers facing the kids go largely unnoticed until it’s too late to do anything. It’s like the conversation Sam has with her dad towards the end of “Sixteen Candles,” if Molly Ringwald was hiding a secret homicidal streak from her father, instead of just avoiding embarrassing topics.

But one thing remains eerily unsettling about “Heathers,” and it’s due entirely to events that took place a decade after it was released. In a world post-Columbine and Virginia Tech, the representation of school violence in this movie is a little too relatable to be funny. While the violence itself is never glorified—it’s presented in the same spirit as the bomb-drop at the end of “Dr. Strangelove”—watching J.D. whip out a gun in the middle of a crowded cafeteria and shoot blanks into the faces of two intimidating jocks doesn’t exactly make for entertaining viewing. And while it may not be as big of a stumbling block to some, for people who’ve grown up with school violence as a reality, it’s a little harder to get used to.

I think that’s why I’m kind of on the fence about “Heathers,” that and an ending that feels too rushed and sloppy, not the sharp wake-up call it needed to be. Most of this movie is funny, whip-smart, and provides entertainingly harsh commentary about the culture of the time. In 1989, I’m sure J.D.’s behavior came off exactly the way it was supposed to. But some things don’t get better with age. And in the case of “Heathers,” history has altered the way people watching this movie for the first time (like me) will see it. It’s unfortunate, but it can’t really be helped.

Random observations:

Fun fact: I’ve mentioned “Doctor Strangelove” in this review, which isn’t entirely a coincidence. Waters originally tried to get Stanley Kubrick to direct his script before settling for then-newcomer Michael Lehmann (who, like Waters, eventually blew his cred by making stinkers like “Hudson Hawk” and “40 Days and 40 Nights”). I can’t really imagine Kubrick making this exact movie, but I can see why Waters would have wanted him to. There’s evidence of his style all over this thing, from the satire in the script to the flashy colors in every frame.

J.D.’s dad, a wacko contractor who’s fond of explosives, mentions encountering resistance on a job in Kansas from a group of people who wanted to “save the memorial oaks.” Kansans: you know something like that would only ever happen in Lawrence, right?

Trivia: The high school in “Heathers” is Westerberg High, named for Paul Westerberg of The Replacements. It’s a useful factoid to know sometimes in bar quizzes, so for those of you who do that sort of thing: you’re welcome.

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3 thoughts on “Minding the Gap: Heathers

  1. TheVern says:

    I like your thoughts about this movie. There is no way that this would be made today, so to have it come out when it did was really ballsey. I think the violence in this was merely a metapor about how we would like to get rid of our problems Veronica thought she was doing the right thing by killing these people, but you can’t get rid of assholes they appear everywhere.

  2. Aidy says:

    I have never seen ‘Heathers’; I have only heard about it over the years. Didn’t seem like my sort of film, but when I read over your review, it makes me curious. It does seem like a darkly entertaining film, as were many teen movies of the 80s. Great review.

  3. […] Cinematic Paradox* Foolish Blatherings* No More Popcorn* The Warning […]

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